"I am relieved therefore that they (the EU states) were able to respond positively to the crisis in Chad."

The EU force that will be led by Irish Lieutenant-General Patrick Nash.

O'Dea said that the first Irish troops were expected to be on the ground early in February.

An EU diplomat, who requested anonymity, said he expected the operation as a whole to begin "by mid-February".

"The operational plan still needs approval by the Council (of EU ministers) but I do not see any problems now," he said.

Former colonial power France will provide the backbone of the force but EU diplomats stress that a total of 14 EU states will have troops present in the ground.

"It is the most multinational deployment we have launched in Africa," said the diplomat.

EU commanders have struggled to cajole member states into providing the costly helicopters vital to the force in the harsh terrain of eastern Chad and the Central African Republic, where it will also deploy.

France announced on Thursday that it was willing to increase its contribution, and said it hoped others would come forward.

There were no details on what France, Belgium and Poland had together agreed to provide, but the EU diplomat said commanders now calculated they had enough helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

About 234,000 Darfur refugees, along with 178,000 displaced
eastern Chadians and 43,000 Central Africans are housed in camps in
the region.