The EU pledged $310 million on Friday to an African rapid reaction force that will be empowered to intervene unilaterally across the troubled continent to end civil wars or genocide.

At the moment, the force exists only in a draft document prepared by African Union (AU) defence ministers earlier this week, but heads of state and prime ministers are expected to approve the proposal at a two-day summit that opened on Friday.

"Africa is and will stay a priority for the European Union"

Romano Prodi,
European Commission President

With fragile peace efforts in the continent's many troublespots, there is international pressure on the Ethiopia-based AU to take an active lead in peacekeeping.

Pledging the 250 million euros, European Commission President Romano Prodi told the assembled leaders in Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte: "Africa is and will stay a priority for the European Union."

Military intervention

The AU draft document says wars and civil strifes - such as those in Burundi, the Republic of Congo and Sudan - are the main obstacles to development, damage economies, create millions of refugees and scare off foreign investors.

The draft empowers the AU to order military intervention or impose sanctions on a member state in the case of civil war or genocide, diplomats and AU sources said.

"Two key issues will dominate the agenda: a security and defence policy and the optimum use of agricultural and water resources"

Alpha Omar Konare,
AU Commission President

African leaders last year approved in principal a proposal to establish a multi-national peacekeeping force on the continent by 2010, although questions over funding and logistics have delayed implementation.

Regional bases

The proposed African Standby Force was to begin with the deployment of about 15,000 AU troops at five regional bases by 2005, expanding to a continental force by 2010.

African leaders were due to approve the force at last year's AU summit in Maputo, but delayed final approval amid questions over how the new army would be funded. African countries have asked developed countries to foot most of the bill, but the plan has not been well-received.

The proposed force was to be made up primarily of troops from the continent's military powerhouses - South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt - and operate under the direction of the AU's Peace and Security Council.

But discussions thus far have not touched on important details, such as command structures and staffing, or on what benchmarks would be used to determine when the force would be deployed.