Malta yesterday declared that it was not in a position to provide any contribution to European peace-keeping operations around the world, whether in the form of troops or contribution of another nature.

However, it declared its support for the formation of EU battle groups and stated that it would be considering committing 'niche capabilities' in the future.

The declarations were made during a military capability commitment conference of EU Defence Ministers held in Brussels. Malta was represented by Parliamentary Secretary Tony Abela.

The ministers declared that the first rapid reaction battle groups to enforce United Nations peace missions will be ready for action next year.

During a press conference following the meeting, Dutch Defence Minister Henk Kamp said the battle groups would provide the Union with "credible, rapidly deployable, coherent force packages".

The first of 13 battle groups, composed of 1,500 troops each, will be ready for missions next year, with the others becoming operational by 2007.

Mr Kamp said: "These initiatives contribute to the implementation of the European security strategy, enabling the EU to deal better with threats and global challenges."

Sources close to the meeting told The Times that nearly all EU member states, as well as non-EU member Norway, promised contributions to the battle groups which, once set up, would be ready for deployment within ten days following a UN request.

The groups will in some cases centre around one nation or be formed on the basis of contributions from several EU countries.

The EU will be able to carry out one military mission at a time next year, rising to two simultaneous operations in 2007. Those expected to be operational for EU duty next year will be set up on a national level by Britain, France, Italy and Spain. The other 11 groups will include soldiers from several nations, including Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Slovenia, Greece, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden and Norway.

Niche capabilities in support of the battle groups will be provided by Cyprus (medical group), Lithuania (water purification unit), Greece (sealift coordination) and France (multinational and deployable force headquarters).

When asked, a member of the government's delegation told The Times that Malta's constitution did not preclude Malta from participating in this initiative.

Other neutral member states in fact had already declared their participation, including Austria and Finland, while Ireland declared it will be considering future participation. Denmark is the only EU member state that has said it will not take part.

Speaking to The Times, a spokesman for the defence department in the Office of the Prime Minister said that at present Malta could not afford to dedicate any resources to the EU battle groups. There were financial constraints and there were no human resources available in the Maltese army.

The only way Malta could participate, he said, was by sending a 'token' commitment in the form of medical support staff or something similar. If this were to be decided, Malta would participate together with other countries and definitely not on its own.

Asked about the relation between the EU groups and Nato, the Dutch Defence Minister said the groups will operate independently of Nato but the two will be "complementary and mutually reinforcing."

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