Region's leaders seek to push foreign fighters from Central African Republic

Mon Oct 21, 2013 6:24pm EDT

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N'DJAMENA (Reuters) - Regional leaders on Monday authorized African troops deployed to Central African Republic to use force if necessary to drive foreign fighters out of the country, which has been plagued by violence.

The Central African Republic, which is rich in minerals, has descended into chaos since mostly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize in March.

Michel Djotodia, who swept to power at the head of the rebellion, has failed to control his former fighters, many of whom are mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, and the worsening violence has become sectarian in nature.

An African Union force - soon to number 2,600 and made up of troops from neighboring states including Chad, Gabon, Congo Republic and Cameroon - has deployed as part of an eventual 3,600-strong mission.

"(The heads of state) ask (the force) to proceed with the immediate disarmament and removal, voluntarily or by force, of all foreign armed elements," read a statement issued at the end of a regional summit in Chad's capital, N'Djamena.

The regional leaders pledged more support for the mission, including air support, the statement read, though it gave no further details.

Former colonial power France has urged world and regional powers not to ignore the conflict, which has already driven more than 400,000 people from their homes and has been marked by acts of violence such as murder and rape.

With the African force's resources limited, France is seeking a U.N. Security Council mandate that would turn the operation into a U.N. peacekeeping force ultimately supported by French troops.

Paris is concerned by growing violence between Central African Republic's Muslim and Christian communities and worries that the ungoverned nation - strategically located in the heart of Africa - could become a magnet for regional armed groups.

In addition to Seleka's mercenary fighters, Janjaweed Arab fighters from Darfur are also present, as are members of Uganda's rebel Lord's Resistance Army.

(Reporting by Madjiasra Nako; Writing by Joe Bavier; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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