France played down suggestions it had held out against any Nato presence on mainland Africa, its former colonial backyard, but stuck by its decision to block a US proposal for the June 2006 manoeuvres to be hosted in Mauritania.

"Cape Verde emerged as the de-politicised compromise," Benoit d'Aboville, France's ambassador to Nato, said on Tuesday of a decision taken last week by Nato envoys in Brussels.

The manoeuvres are meant to be the final test of a new 20,000-strong rapid reaction force which Nato hopes to be able to send to far-flung trouble spots at five days' notice. 

US view
   
Washington had rejected other venue options - including the United States itself - as not challenging enough for a force seen as crucial to the 26-member alliance's efforts to create a new role for itself after the end of the Cold War.

US General James Jones, Nato's top soldier in Europe, said he was happy with the choice of the rocky, volcanic islands 500km off the west coast of Africa.

"It does all I want from an operational standpoint. It's a fairly challenging exercise," he told a media briefing of the month-long manoeuvres that will involve several thousand air, sea and ground troops.

A Nato official said the exercise would be funded by the alliance. Cape Verde, seen as one of Africa's more politically and economically stable countries, would not be paid for hosting the event but could expect better ties with Nato, he said.