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Europes capacity to act in Africa and in conflicts tested by Darfur mission
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    PARIS — Even before its troops got lost and came under fire this week in Sudan, Europe’s mission to protect some half-million uprooted people on the borders of conflict-torn Darfur had suffered an inauspicious start.
    European nations were slow to contribute troops to the force, with some wary of being dragged by France, the one-time colonial power in the region, into an ill-advised adventure in a dangerous, unstable part of Africa.
    Some African leaders were suspicious if not downright hostile to the idea of Europeans policing their backyard. Sudan, in particular, has long resisted international involvement in efforts to bring safety and peace to the people of Darfur, where fighting has killed more than 200,000 people and created 2.5 million refugees since 2003.
    It’s too early to tell whether contributing European nations are prepared to accept large numbers of casualties among their troops or an extended campaign in the region, as some experts warn. France, which is contributing the bulk of the force, has over the years grown used to seeing its forces sustain casualties in Africa. But other countries may not be so tolerant of troop losses or a long-term commitment.
    Europe’s military capabilities — in decline since the Cold War’s end and already stretched by Afghanistan and Iraq — struggled to meet the call for contributions to the force.
    Shortages of helicopters, vital for quickly flying peacekeepers over hostile terrain, contributed to months of delay, as did questions over how the European Union would pay for it all. Initial hopes the deployment would start last November proved wildly overoptimistic.
    Now that European boots are finally hitting African soil, the shooting Monday in Sudan of two French peacekeepers — wounding one and leaving the other missing — has shown the force could be headed for a tough time.
    The French special forces troops in a jeep crossed inadvertently from Chad into Sudan, where they were fired upon at close range even after they identified themselves, said French Defense Minister Herve Morin. Other French troops later returned to the area to try to find the missing soldier; they were also fired on and fired back, Morin said.
    In the border zones where eastern Chad, the northern corner of Central African Republic and Sudan’s Darfur region meet, the European force, known as EUFOR, will be operating amid rebellions and rivalries, conflict and geopolitical intrigue. They will be trying to provide security for some half-million uprooted people forced to take shelter in more than 130 refugee camps, villages and makeshift sites, over an area larger than Britain.
    The force’s mission is not to secure the borders themselves, but to protect civilians, aid workers and U.N. personnel. So far, 14 countries have promised troops. A French diplomat said another two or three countries have also offered to take part.
    But the force’s neutrality has been called into question by the fact that, of the 3,800 planned troops, 2,100 are coming from France — West Africa’s one-time colonial overlord that still calls the shots there, raising African hackles, even though French President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised a less colonialist approach.
    France is the key supporter of Chadian President Idriss Deby. It helped Deby fight off rebels who swarmed on his capital in February. Some rebels have warned they regard EUFOR as nothing more than a French-tainted occupying force coming to prop up Deby.
    ‘‘EUFOR has a very difficult task mainly due to the high proportion of French troops in its ranks,’’ Daniela Kroslak, deputy Africa program director for the International Crisis Group, said in a telephone interview.
    That is just one of the complexities facing the force. Chad and France also accuse Sudan of arming anti-Deby rebels. Oil-rich Sudan is in turn backed by energy-hungry China. China is facing pressure internationally ahead of this summer’s Beijing Olympics to get Sudan to ease off on Darfur.
    An array of potential military, logistical and geopolitical traps lurk for the force’s Irish commander, Lt. Gen. Patrick Nash.
    There are also basic questions about whether Nash will have enough troops and equipment to get the job done, and whether the one-year timeframe for the mission is realistic. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology research paper in November suggested that closer to 12,500 EUFOR troops would be needed and that the current numbers seem ‘‘well below the required force size for the mission.’’
    The expected high financial cost of the mission could also become problematic if it drags on. Even though the force is being sent in the name of the entire 27-nation EU, costs fall unevenly on countries that send the most troops, said a French diplomat who spoke anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
    ‘‘The more you contribute, the more you pay,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s very clear that a bundle of countries, including recently the Poles, tell us, ’We are going to take part, that is clear, but we have real worries.’’’

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