France is to boost its military presence in Central African Republic (CAR) by 1,000 troops under a United Nations-backed mission to keep at bay mounting chaos in its former colony.
Defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made the announcement yesterday, a day after a UN official warned of mass atrocities and possible civil war in CAR, a poor country with huge mineral wealth, including gold, diamonds, oil and uranium, which has been in turmoil since rebel groups overthrew the president in March.
The Séléka rebels have been accused of atrocities including killings, rapes and conscription of child soldiers. France’s foreign minister said last week CAR was “on the verge of genocide”.
“It’s in collapse and we cannot have a country fall apart like that. There is the violence, massacres and humanitarian chaos that follow a collapse,” Mr Le Drian said in an interview. “It will be a short mission to allow calm and stability to return.”
The US state department estimates about 400,000 people have been displaced and 68,000 have fled to neighbouring countries since the leader of the Séléka rebels and interim president Michel Djotodia lost control of his loose coalition of warlords.
The violence has pitted the mainly Muslim fighters of Séléka rebels against Christian militias.
Christians make up half the population and Muslims 15 per cent. France has about 2,800 troops in Mali taking part in an operation that began after rebels and al-Qaeda-linked militants tried to take over the capital last winter. Mr Le Drian dismissed comparisons between Mali and CAR. “In Mali there was an attack of jihadists, terrorists who wanted to transform Mali into a terrorist state. This is a collapse of a country with a potential for religious clashes,” he said. “France has international responsibilities, is a permanent member of the Security Council, has history with CAR, and the UN is asking us to do it.”
France already has some 420 soldiers in CAR – mostly to protect the airport in the capital, Bangui. CAR has asked France to increase that force and French diplomats have announced plans to circulate a draft Security Council resolution that will call for additional support for the 3,000-strong force led by the African Union now in CAR.
A French military spokesman said the UN mandate would allow French troops to restore order. France hopes a resolution will be passed before the start of a summit in Paris next week focusing on security issues in Africa, French diplomats have said.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius last week said CAR was “on the verge of genocide”.
“It’s total disorder. You have seven surgeons for a population of five million, an infant mortality rate of 25 per cent in some areas and 1.5 million people who have nothing, not even food, and armed gangs, bandits, etc,” he said in a television interview.
In a briefing late on Monday to the Security Council, UN deputy secretary-general Jan Eliasson said the situation in CAR was deteriorating so fast that a UN peacekeeping force may soon be the only option.
He said CAR was becoming “a breeding ground for extremists and armed groups” and unprecedented sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians.