The European Union plans to send some 100 troops to Uganda next year to train Somali government forces who are fighting Islamist insurgents, European officials said.
The mission still needs final approval but could start in the first half of next year, and is likely to be led by Spain, which takes over the EU presidency for six months from January.
French Defence Minister Herve Morin said Paris intended to contribute 30 soldiers.
Spain has also committed troops and Britain, Slovenia, Hungary and Greece may also contribute.
“We agreed today that the EU as a whole can participate … but we will take this decision in the next weeks when we have an operational plan,” said Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
“It can be done rather quickly.”
The intention is to train up to 2000 Somali troops, which will complement other training missions and bring the total number of better-trained Somali soldiers to 6000.
Defence ministers also confirmed, as expected, an extension of the EU naval operation Atalanta, to tackle piracy off the coast of Somalia until the end of 2010.
Somalia has had no central government since 1991, despite governments pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to help it develop its security forces with the aim of combating piracy and restoring order after decades of fighting.
Since the start of 2007, conflict has killed around 19 000 civilians and uprooted 1.5 million Somalis from their homes. The government is now confined to a few small blocks of the capital, with an African Union force protecting critical sites.
As well as the growing cost of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, with Somali gangs pocketing millions of dollars in ransoms, the United States has concerns Somalia could become a haven for training militants allied to al Qaeda and other groups.
The EU-led training of Somali forces is expected to take place in Uganda, but France has offered Djibouti as an alternative if Uganda falls through.
“We clearly see that if we don’t help Somalia, then we could have the Atalanta operation for 20 or 30 years,” France’s Morin told reporters referring to an EU-led naval campaign to patrol the waters off the coast of Somalia to prevent piracy.
Somali pirates are currently holding at least 13 vessels and more than 230 crew members hostage.
Pic: French troops