Monday, December 9, 2013, 11:08
French troops in CAR to help restore order
By Agencies in Bangui, Central African Republic

French troops in CAR to help restore order

A former Seleka rebel looks at French soldiers patrolling by his base, close to the French embassy in Bangui, Central African Republic, on Saturday. (SIA KAMBOU / Agence France Preses)

Paris promises troops will stay as long as necessary

French soldiers were cheered by residents on Saturday as they began patrolling densely populated neighborhoods of Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, which has been rocked by sectarian killings in Muslim and Christian communities.

Attacks on civilians in Bangui continued for a third day, aid workers said. Groups of heavily armed gunmen sped around its dusty streets after the expiry of a 3 pm deadline for all forces, except foreign peacekeepers and the presidential guard, to return to barracks.

France is deploying 1,600 troops to its former colony, where hundreds have been killed in fighting between the Seleka rebel group that seized power in March and Christian self-defense militias. The fighting has spilled over into religious violence in the capital and beyond, with at least 300 people killed since Thursday, the Red Cross said.

The Central African Republic has been gripped by chaos since Seleka toppled President Francois Bozize and embarked on months of looting, rapes and killings. Seleka’s leader, Michel Djotodia, installed as CAR’s interim president, has lost control of his loose band of fighters.

On Thursday, the UN Security Council authorized France to use deadly force to help African peacekeepers struggling to restore order. Paris sprang into action after an attack on Bangui the same day by Christian militias and gunmen loyal to Bozize that ignited the worst violence in a year of crisis.

French helicopters and warplanes flew low over the dilapidated riverside capital on Saturday. Local residents cheered French soldiers as they patrolled on foot down narrow streets.

“If they can get into the neighborhoods, we might start seeing a reduction in these crimes,” said Amy Martin, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “The level of atrocities and the lack of humanity, the senseless killing, defies imagination,” she said.

French reinforcements crossed into western Central African Republic from Cameroon on Saturday, while troops also moved northward from the capital in a bid to quickly pacify the sparsely populated interior, army spokesman Gilles Jarron said.

The troops reached Bossangoa shortly after nightfall.

The force’s strength reached 1,200 troops by midday on Saturday.

“It’s a number that will remain as long as necessary for this mission,” French President Francois Hollande told a news conference in Paris.

Hollande’s office said the African Union force France is supporting would be increased to 6,000 men from 3,500.

“The country for the first time in its history is heading toward a religious war. We have to be very careful,” Chadian President Idriss Deby, whose country has provided hundreds of troops to the mission, said after a meeting on the crisis.