Brussels - The race is on to find hundreds of troops for the EU's military mission in the troubled Central African Republic, the French head of the operation said Thursday.
"We are working with a sense of urgency," said General Philippe Ponties who took up his post as the mission chief for the force earlier this week.
The objective is to deploy the first soldiers "as quickly as possible" in the capital Bangui to help French and African Union troops already there, Ponties said.
"But at this stage, there are still many unknowns," he added.
EU foreign ministers cleared the 9-month mission on Monday but without resolving who would contribute an estimated 500 troops.
Major EU powers such as Britain and Germany have refused to commit soldiers but have offered logistics support.
Negotiations among the 28 member states are difficult, with many willing to support France in its former colony but reluctant to get drawn into a bloody sectarian conflict between majority Christians and the Muslim community.
Diplomats say Georgia - anxious to cement good ties with the EU - could supply up to 100 troops while Estonia has offered 55.
Finland and Luxembourg are other possibilities while Belgium seems uncertain, worried about financing a troop contribution when its state budget is so tight.
The mission approved Monday includes funding of €25.9m but that does not cover the cost of troop contributions which member states would be responsible for.
French President Francois Hollande urged in December for solidarity with France, which had intervened with 1 600 soldiers to prevent CAR becoming a failed state.
In this case, a small EU ground contingent might be enough to satisfy Paris which would then complete the numbers.
Ponties said the EU troops would take up position at Bangui airport, home to up to 100 000 refugees living in "extremely precarious conditions."
The aim is to establish "a very visible presence ... to get tangible results as quick as possible," he said.