"The expansion of this mission is an urgent requirement in order to protect the people of Darfur and we hope to support in any way we can the African Union's effort to expand this mission," a senior NATO diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The North Atlantic Council (NAC), the alliance's decision-making body, reached agreement Wednesday to go ahead and provide airlift in parallel with the European Union, which also has pledged to help the African Union.
NATO defense ministers meeting here Thursday are expected to ratify the agreement, and hold discussions on the specifics of an aid package that will include training for African peacekeepers as well as airlift.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived here Wednesday from Norway for the two-day meeting.
NATO, EU PARALLEL MECHANISM
France had insisted on providing its resources only through the EU, while other allies had wanted the response to be coordinated through NATO.
Representatives to the NAC agreed that NATO assistance would be managed by the alliance's military command, while some European members of NATO would provide assistance through the European Union, the diplomat said.
Each organization will then coordinate with an African Union-led coordinating cell in Addis Ababa.
"It's a very practical solution, it builds on existing NATO capabilities," he said.
The African Union is preparing to double the size of its force in Darfur next month amid a deteriorating humanitarian crisis, considered one of the world's worst.
The Darfur conflict began in February 2003 pitting Khartoum and Arab Janjaweed militias against a largely black rebel movement, leaving 2.4 million people homeless and killing between 180,000 and 300,000, mostly ethnic African civilians.
US WILL TRANSPORT AFRICAN TROOPS
The United States will provide some of the airlift to transport African troops, a senior US defense official said, declining to provide specifics.
"I don't think we have those details yet. We're putting together the package," the US official said, adding that there was "no firm date" for commencing the airlift operations.
The senior NATO diplomat agreed that no firm dates have been set, but said July remains the goal for conducting the airlift.
"We support the AU's decision to expand the mission in July and we'll work with the AU to achieve that," the diplomat said.
TRAINING OF AU TROOPS
The training assistance is aimed at enhancing the capacity of the African Union troops in part by improving command and control of the force, the officials said.
"There are other training operations that are being examined, some of them include placing trainers in cells in various levels of command of the AU mission," the NATO diplomat said.
Besides Darfur, NATO defense ministers also will be discussing plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan to protect parliamentary elections in September.
NATO is looking at adding three battalions -- from Spain, Netherlands and Romania -- for the elections, the diplomat said.
The United States is prepared to contribute an infantry company to round out a battalion in Kabul, the US official said.
"Things are looking as though we are going to be able to provide the kind of support we did during the presidential elections once again this time even though it's on a larger scale," the NATO diplomat said.