France is sending arms to Kurdish forces battling hardline jihadists in northern Iraq “in the coming hours,” President Francois Hollande said on Wednesday.
Hollande said the decision was taken in response to “the urgent needs expressed by the Kurdistan regional authorities” and had the backing of authorities in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
France is the first European country to answer the call by Kurdish forces for weapons to fight the Islamic State (IS) insurgent group, which has seized vast areas of Iraq as well as parts of neighbouring Syria.
Tens of thousands of minority Christians and Yezidis have fled the insurgents’ threats to convert to Islam or be killed.
US and British aircraft have been airlifting supplies to thousands of Yezidis, who have been trapped for days on a mountain near the Syrian border without adequate food, water or shelter.
Kurdistan’s government has demanded that the humanitarian aid be matched by military aid to help its Peshmerga forces combat the IS militants.
The US, which has carried out airstrikes against IS targets, slowing the rebels’ advance, is reportedly supplying the Peshmerga with rifles and ammunition.
In Europe, however, there is no consensus on how to respond to the Iraqi Kurds’ request.
Britain and Italy have indicated they would support arming Kurdish forces.
British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday cut short a holiday in Portugal and returned to London to attend a meeting of the government’s emergency Cobra committee on the situation.
Germany said on Tuesday it was considering sending non-lethal military equipment.
In Iraq itself, outgoing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was trying to cling to power, despite a rival being picked to lead a new unity government.
The premier of eight years, who has been accused of discriminating against minority Sunnis, vowed to remain in office unless Iraq’s Supreme Court ruled he was not entitled to form a government, Alsumaria television reported.
His stand paved the way for a possible standoff with former communications minister Haider al-Abadi, who was asked on Monday by President Fouad Massoum to form the next government, despite al-Maliki’s coalition winning April elections.
Al-Abadi’s nomination was welcomed by the international community as paving the way for a more inclusive government after the divisions of the al-Maliki years.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Kurdish fighters who crossed into Iraq to help fight the IS militants near Syria’s border, have said the Yezidi refugees stuck on Mount Sinjar are in “severe” need of humanitarian aid.
The refugees were “not under any immediate threat of attack” but were in urgent need of food, medical aid and water, spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, Redur Xelil, said in a statement.
The US said Tuesday it would send an additional 130 military advisers to northern Iraq “to assess the scope of the humanitarian mission and develop additional humanitarian assistance options.”
Meanwhile, Pope Francis has called on the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to step up efforts to combat the militants’ attacks on minorities.
In a letter published Wednesday on the Vatican’s website, Pope Francis repeated his “urgent appeal” to the secretary general to end the “humanitarian tragedy” adding that those threatened or displaced by IS rebels should be protected and assisted in the safe return to their homes.
“The tragic experiences of the Twentieth Century, and the most basic understanding of human dignity, compels the international community … to do all that it can to stop and to prevent further systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities,” Pope Francis said.