Nato, the alliance created in the cold war to protect western Europe from the Soviet Union, is set to go to Africa to provide logistical help for the stricken Sudanese province of Darfur.
The move follows a suggestion by Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, at a meeting of Nato foreign ministers last week in Vilnius, Lithuania. Yesterday a formal request from the African Union arrived at Nato's Brussels headquarters and Nato ambassadors approved the beginning of talks on how to provide aid.
A move into Africa would bolster a trend for Nato “out of area” missions, which has seen the alliance take on responsibility for peacekeeping in Afghanistan and officer level training in Iraq.
“The idea is that Nato should add value,” said a spokesman for Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato secretary-general, who stressed that at this point the support for the AU would be purely concerned with logistics and planning.
But there are doubts about whether the AU will be able to fulfil plans to increase its monitoring force in the region from 2,000 to more than 7,000 soldiers and whether Nato or the European Union might eventually offer to send troops to fill the gap.
Until now the AU has stressed its “ownership” of the crisis, where tens of thousands of people have been killed, and has been reluctant to consider the presence of western forces on the ground.
At the Vilnius meeting, Michel Barnier, French foreign minister, expressed doubts about a role for Nato in Darfur. “Nato is not the world's policeman,” he said.
France prides itself on its ties to Africa and is acutely aware of Sudan's strategic role. In addition, the EU is in the process of forming “battlegroups”, principally to act as bridgeheads for peacekeeping missions in the continent. However, so far, practical progress in assembling the forces of 1,500 soldiers has been slow.
At an EU foreign ministers' meeting this week, Mr Barnier added that the EU should step up its €100m ($130m, £68m) programme to provide logistical aid for Darfur, and possibly upgrade it to a formal mission.