Troop shortage

The mission will also aim to streamline delivery of humanitarian aid to refugees, the EU said.

The force was originally supposed to be sent last year but was delayed by a shortfall of troops and military equipment. Belgium, Poland and France agreed to contribute helicopters and other means of air transport earlier this month.

The EU force, which has been authorised by the UN, has headquarters outside Paris and is to be made up mostly of French troops under an Irish general's command.

A further 13 EU states have pledged to provide troops, an EU diplomat said.

Austria confirmed on Monday it will send an advance group of 15 personnel this week.

Neutrality pledge

The first Austrian soldiers would fly into the Chadian capital of N'Djamena on the and would then be transported to a temporary camp in the town of Abeche.

The foreign ministers said the EU force will conduct its mission "in a neutral, impartial and independent manner," and will seek to co-operate closely with the governments of Chad and CAR.

The conflict in Darfur has claimed about 200,000 lives and driven more than two million from their homes since rebels took up arms against the government in 2003.

Ministers also pledged that the operation would co-ordinate fully with the larger planned joint UN-African Union mission in Darfur itself.