Agencies, The African Union (AU) began drawing up plans on Tuesday to establish a 15,000-strong African stand-by force by June 2006. The entire contingent should be able to be deployed within 30 days of an order from the AU's Peace and Security Council.

A draft roadmap on peacekeeping in the continent, released by the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, said five brigades of 3,000 men each would be in place by next year. The roadmap was presented to conflict-resolution experts at the start of a two-day meeting to draw up guidelines for the force.

These experts, who represent regional bodies in Africa, are expected to endorse the roadmap and draw up plans to improve cooperation between the continent's regions.

Said Djinnit, the AU's peace and security commissioner, said it was critical that Africa addressed its own conflicts by “harmonising” its regional peacekeeping forces.

“We need to agree on a roadmap for an African stand-by force,” he told the experts. “It is extremely important we all move forward in the same direction.”

In addition, a “robust” rapid-reaction force, able to be deployed in 14 days, would be set up by 2010 to prevent genocide if the international community failed to step in, according to the roadmap.

The five brigades of the stand-by force, whose troops would be based in their countries of origin, were expected to be comprised of up to 750 men and 120 military observers, plus helicopter units, engineer units, logistics, military police and medical staff.

A police force would also work with the peacekeepers for more difficult missions.

The proposed force, intended to prevent and combat wars on the continent, would be made up of forces from five regions – north, east, south, west and central Africa. Initially it would offer military expertise to political missions like those in Cote d'Ivoire and the observer mission in Sudan.

At the meeting, the AU said that while southern and West African nations had made considerable progress in drawing up plans for the stand-by force, central Africa was lagging behind.

Funding for the stand-by force also remained an issue. The AU will present its plans to the G8 group of wealthy countries in April, where it will try to secure support.

The European Union has already donated euros 250 million (US $327 million) to the AU's peace fund, which will be used for training the stand-by force.

In its report, the African Union admitted that lessons needed to be learnt from its mission in Darfur, where it has been criticised for not having enough troops on the ground.

Earlier in March , AU commission chairman Alpha Oumar Konare appealed to African countries to provide more peacekeepers for hotspots. He said that while African nations were willing to offer troops, the international community must be willing to provide greater logistical support.