European Union leaders backed plans on Friday to offer closer ties to the bloc`s eastern neighbours, partly to match a more ambitious project for the Mediterranean region, according to Reuters.

The Eastern Partnership plan is to offer new areas of cooperation to Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and, subject to domestic reforms, Belarus. But the plan is vague, with details only to be worked out by March, 2009.

Those countries are all former Soviet republics in which a resurgent Russia is vying to reassert its influence. The EU has a separate partnership agreement with Russia.

"The European Council (EU governments) agrees on the need to further promote regional cooperation among the EU`s eastern neighbours and between the EU and the region," said the leaders` draft statement, due to be endorsed at the summit.

The Mediterranean Union, already approved by EU leaders in March, will offer 12 countries from the region an annual summit and a secretariat to boost ties in security, trade and culture.

But both plans have got mixed reception in the regions.

Some diplomats say Ukraine is uneasy about being lumped together with countries that are smaller, geographically more distant from the EU and face regional conflicts in the Caucasus.

Ukraine feels special among the countries, one diplomat said privately. France, which takes over the EU`s presidency in the second half of 2008, plans to offer stronger ties to Ukraine, culminating with an EU-Ukraine summit in Kiev in September.

The EU has also launched talks on a free trade pact with Ukraine.

The Mediterranean plan has been chided by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for having been seriously watered down compared with initial grand plans of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In its original version, the Mediterranean Union was to have nine new agencies and a bank, but the plan was scaled down at the insistence of Germany and some EU newcomers from central and eastern Europe, which feared that too much of the bloc`s funds would be devoted to the project.

EU leaders told the executive European Commission to propose details on the Eastern Partnership before a summit next March.

Poland and Sweden, authors of the project, hope it will become a forum of multilateral cooperation with regular meetings of ministers and leaders. They said it could prepare the countries for eventual EU membership.

The EU`s eastern neighbours are already linked to Brussels through the strictly bilateral European Neighbourhood Policy, which offers countries better trade access, economic assistance and visa liberalisation as they adapt to EU standards.