France seeks EU help in 'war' with terrorists

(From left) European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, French State Secretary for European Affairs Harlem Desir, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz observing a minute of sile
(From left) European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, French State Secretary for European Affairs Harlem Desir, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz observing a minute of silence for victims of the Paris attacks, in Brussels, Belgium, on Nov 17.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS • France, in an unexpected move yesterday, invoked the European Union's mutual assistance clause for the first time, asking its partners for military help and other aid in missions in the Middle East and Africa after the Paris attacks.

The move came hours after President Francois Hollande called for the United States and Russia to join in a grand global coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

France's calling on the 28-nation EU - and not the more powerful war machine of the US-led Nato alliance - is politically symbolic but unlikely to reshape the coalition including the US and Britain that is already battling ISIS.

"It is above all a political act, taken for the first time," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves le Drian told reporters yesterday at a meeting of his EU counterparts in Brussels.

EU officials said the appeal would lead to the relief of French forces in action on other fronts and to more intelligence-sharing within Europe, but not to the fielding of a European army.

EU defence ministers unanimously backed the French request, according to the bloc's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

In a further show of solidarity, the EU has also signalled leniency on its tough budget rules after France warned it would not meet its deficit obligations as it steps up security following the attacks.

Mr Hollande, who has described last Friday's attacks that killed 129 people as "an act of war", met visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday morning to press his call for separate US-led and Russian-led coalitions in Syria to combine forces and give priority to fighting ISIS.

Mr Kerry later disclosed that Washington and Paris were ready to stage a strong military offensive against ISIS soon.

Mr Hollande's office also announced that he would be meeting US President Barack Obama in Washington next Tuesday, and then with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow two days later.

French and Russian jets were already pounding targets in Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in northern Syria, yesterday.

Mr Putin has also instructed his navy in the Mediterranean to cooperate with the French "as allies".

Meanwhile, the French police carried out 128 raids across the country yesterday morning in a continuing crackdown on extremist networks, a day after a similar sweep found "an arsenal of weapons" in the south-eastern city of Lyon.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said more than 100 people had been placed under house arrest and 23 arrested.

German police were reported to have detained three people suspected of involvement in the Paris attacks, while Belgian media claimed two men were being held for similar reasons in Brussels.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2015, with the headline 'France seeks EU help in 'war' with terrorists'. Print Edition | Subscribe