EU foreign ministers are expected on Monday to approve a European military intervention in the Central African Republic, according to diplomats, to provide backup to French and African Union peacekeepers already in the conflict-ridden country.
Hundreds of people have died and up to a million have been displaced by violence between Muslims and Christians in the past year.
The Red Cross has warned of a “massive humanitarian catastrophe.”
“We need to be on the ground as quickly as possible,” a top EU official said, on condition of anonymity.
The mission is to be fast-tracked with an aim to deploy troops as early as February, according to EU sources.
The ministers, meeting in Brussels, will consider plans for an intervention lasting four to six months, focusing on the capital Bangui, where thousands of people have fled to makeshift camps near the airport, seeking the protection of international forces.
“The airport site remains a major humanitarian preoccupation for us,” said an EU source, citing not only an absence of food and hygiene, but also the airport's strategic importance.
“The smallest shift can lead to a disruption in access to an infrastructure which remains absolutely essential, notably to the delivery of humanitarian resources,” he added.
As well as providing protection for thousands of displaced civilians and easing humanitarian access, the EU also wants to help create a stable environment for a political reconciliation process that would lead eventually to elections.
The Central African Republic's provisional parliament is in the process of voting in a new leadership, after transitional president Michel Djotodia stepped down ten days ago under international pressure for failing to end the violence.
The EU was planning to deploy a “maximum” of 1 000 troops, one official said, while an EU diplomat spoke of around 400-600 soldiers.
Member states are due to pledge troops at a later stage, as the operation is planned in more detail.
This also includes obtaining a mandate from the United Nations Security Council, which could occur at a meeting later this week.
Its current resolution covers the 1 600 French soldiers already on the ground, alongside more than 3 500 African Union peacekeepers.
On Monday morning, top EU and UN officials will hold separate talks in Brussels to assess humanitarian needs in the Central African Republic, ahead of an international donors' conference scheduled for February 1 in Addis Ababa.
The EU and member states gave 76 million euros (103 million dollars) in humanitarian aid last year to the victims of the crisis in Central African Republic, making the bloc the largest donor at present, according to the European Commission.
But an EU official said that the country's needs would be “revised upwards” on Monday at the talks hosted by EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos and French Development Minister Pascal Canfin.
Meanwhile on Monday, the EU foreign ministers will discuss the upcoming Syria peace conference and developments in Egypt, the Middle East peace process and South Sudan.
Afghanistan is also on the agenda, as well a summit between the EU and Russia due to take place in the coming weeks.
The ministers are also expected to agree to a limited and temporary suspension of sanctions on Iran, in return for concessions by Tehran over the country's nuclear programme. -