BRUSSELS : EU foreign ministers on Monday formally approved an EU military mission to the troubled Central African Republic, with some 500 troops to be sent to help French and African Union forces already there.

The “absolute priority is to protect the civilian population from any further violence ... and to make sure that humanitarian aid can be provided,” EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said. The mission, known as EUFOR RCA, “will deploy as soon as possible to back the remarkable efforts of France and our African partners,” Ashton added in a statement.

With the legal basis set, the next step is to put together the force of some 500 troops which is expected to be deployed in the capital Bangui and provide security at the airport, freeing up French soldiers.

“We are nearly there” in terms of the numbers, said one EU official, although major EU powers such as Britain and Germany have refused to commit troops on the ground, preferring instead to offer logistics support.

Diplomats said that if the European Union could not provide all the troops required, Georgia might be ready to supply up to 100.

Estonia has already said it will contribute 55 soldiers to join the 1,600 French troops already taking the lead role in the impoverished country alongside an African Union force of 4,000.

Foreign ministers also agreed funding of 25.9 million euros ($35.3 million) to cover the initial costs of the operation.

The former French colony has been torn by bloody sectarian clashes since Muslim rebels ousted president Francois Bozize in March 2013 and replaced him with their leader Michel Djotodia, who was himself forced out last month.

But violence has continued unabated since then between Christian vigilantes and minority Muslims who have fled the capital in their thousands in search of safety.