The European Union on Friday forged a unified response to the rapid advance of the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq and the resulting refugee crisis, allowing direct arms deliveries to Kurdish fighters battling the Sunni fighters, while several EU nations pledged more humanitarian aid.
The emergency meeting of the bloc's 28 foreign ministers in Brussels, called by France, marked a shift toward greater involvement in Iraq, following weeks during which EU governments mainly left the U.S. to dealt with the situation.
The 2003 U.S.-led Iraq invasion created a bitter rift across the EU, and the bloc has since been loath to get involved in the country. But armed fighters in Iraq and Syria who threaten to reshape the Middle East have raised the stakes by drawing Europeans to their ranks.
EU ministers pledged to step up their efforts to help those displaced by the advances of militants from the Islamic State (IS) group, with several nations announcing they will fly dozens of tons of aid to northern Iraq over the coming days.
"First of all we need to make sure that we alleviate humanitarian suffering," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans told reporters. "Secondly, I believe we need to make sure that IS is not in a position to overrun the Kurds or to take a stronger hold on Iraq."
IS advancements have brought danger closer to European shores, with officials saying about 1,700 radical Muslims from France, Britain and Germany alone are believed to have joined them.
"The present military success of the Islamic State is having a lot of attraction on many young people, even inside Europe, who find this quite thrilling and are quite eager to join forces," a senior EU official, who briefed reporters ahead of the ministers' meeting on condition of anonymity, said Thursday.
France accounts for the largest group of European fighters — estimated this week around 900 — “recruited by the Islamic State and taken to the battle lines," said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
A French radical who had fought in Syria is suspected of killing four people at Brussels' Jewish Museum in May.
Islamic State swiftly advanced across northern and western Iraq in June, routing the Iraqi military and taking the country's second-largest city, Mosul. Thousands of people have been killed and more than 1.5 million others have been displaced by the group. IS fighters "massacred" 80 Yazidis, a religious minority, in a village in northern Iraq, two Kurdish officials said Friday. This month thousands of Yazidis, who have been told by IS to convert or be killed, were trapped on a forbidding mountain range after fleeing from advancing IS fighters.
France said Wednesday it will step up humanitarian aid and send arms to the Kurdish forces. Britain announced it would send Chinook helicopters for the relief operations and Germany pledged to deliver non-lethal military aid such as body armor and armored vehicles. Further humanitarian aid for the displaced is planned, and Britain and Germany haven't ruled out sending arms. The Czech Republic said on Friday that it could start delivering firearms and munitions to the Kurds starting at the end of August.
"These are crises ... that are of concern to our European neighborhood, to our security and stability," said Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini upon arriving in Brussels.
Urging a coordinated EU response, she announced that Italy would send six planes with humanitarian aid for people displaced by the fighting. Germany also sent humanitarian aid such as drinking water, blankets, medicine and food to be unloaded in Irbil, capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Separately on Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that Ottawa will send two cargo planes to move military supplies into northern Iraq as part of the international effort to bolster Kurdish forces.
The flights, crewed by some 30 Canadian Forces personnel, will continue as long as there is equipment and supplies to move.