EU nations are considering a joint military operation in Central Africa amid looming fears of civilian massacres, but there may be little appetite for boots on the ground, experts said Wednesday.
Ambassadors to the European Union will be asked Friday whether or not to approve the rapid deployment of a European force of several hundred troops to help African and French peacekeepers already on the ground to restore security, said an EU official speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The question (to ambassadors) will be: 'Do you think the situation in the Central African Republic merits European involvement?'
"If they agree, detailed options will be put on the table Monday or Tuesday," the official said.
A final decision would be taken by the bloc's 28 foreign ministers at talks in Brussels on January 20.
As sectarian violence worsens between Christian and Muslims in the impoverished state, "EU states don't want to stand accused of standing by and passively watching. Nobody wants a new Rwanda," an EU diplomat said.
"But on the other hand there's little interest in sending troops to this lost corner of the world."
Under a UN mandate, 1,600 French and 4,000 African peacekeepers have deployed in the Central African Republic in recent weeks to end violence between Christian militias and ex-rebels who installed the country's first Muslim leader in a coup in March.
More than 1,000 people are believed to have died last month alone with almost one million people driven from their homes, including half of the residents of the capital, Bangui.
'1,000' troops needed
According to an EU proposal seen by AFP, the "pressing need" to restore security is to "avoid CAR sliding towards complete state failure on the previous Somalia model, and large scale massacres against the civilian population".
"Restoration of security can only be achieved through increasing the military presence on the ground," the document states.
It suggests dispatching "rapidly" a force that one diplomatic source could number around 1,000.
With the CAR's institutions in shambles, the force could take on policing duties in the capital while protecting refugees and aid workers, and possibly safeguarding the airport.
Another option would be to deploy in the west to secure the road to Cameroon.
In either case, the EU proposal suggests a battalion-sized force of 800 to 1,200 troops, comprising fire support, intelligence, medical assets and transport including helicopters.
But discussion over the plan "is expected to be difficult. Most European nations do not see CAR as a priority," said a diplomat.
"The majority of EU nations feel they have no direct interest in taking action," said analyst Bruno Tertrais of France's Foundation for Strategic Research.
France's recent willingness to step in -- under UN mandate -- in its former colonies, such as in Mali, "has a perverse effect of validating the idea that whatever happens, France will always be there," he added.
At an EU summit last month. French President Francois Hollande said Paris was "not asking for troops for military action.
"What we need, is a presence at specific points, such as the airport," he said. "What I would like to see, politically, is a European presence," he said.
"That it not be said that 'France is alone.'"
For the time being, Belgium, Britain, Germany and Poland have offered logistical backup, mainly for transport of troops and equipment.
Belgium has said it could be ready to send troops but only on condition of the launch of an EU force.