France to boost Central African force with U.N. backing

PARIS/BANGUI Tue Nov 26, 2013 2:30pm EST

French soldiers inspect a taxi at a checkpoint at the Mpoko airport in Bangui November 23, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney

French soldiers inspect a taxi at a checkpoint at the Mpoko airport in Bangui November 23, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Joe Penney

PARIS/BANGUI (Reuters) - France said on Tuesday it would increase its force in Central African Republic to at least 1,000 soldiers once a U.N. resolution is passed next week to try to prevent sectarian violence from destabilizing the entire region.

The landlocked nation of 4.6 million people at the heart of Africa has descended into chaos since the Seleka coalition of rebels, many of them from neighboring Chad and Sudan, ousted President Francois Bozize in March.

Seleka leader Michel Djotodia, installed as an interim president, has failed to control his mostly Muslim fighters, who have preyed upon the mainly Christian population, unleashing a wave of tit-for-tat killings.

France, which presides over the 15-member U.N. Security Council in December, hopes a resolution for international intervention in its mineral-rich former colony can be adopted next week.

A French-drafted U.N. resolution, obtained by Reuters, would give a six-month mandate for French troops and the African-led International Support Mission (MISCA) to restore order, protect civilians, and rebuild state authority.

"We are going to reinforce our presence," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Culture radio. "Until now, only Central Africans were threatened, but if a power vacuum is created, it will threaten all countries in the region: Chad, Sudan, Congo and Cameroon."

France now has 400 troops in the riverside capital Bangui, securing the international airport and French interests. Central African Republic Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye told Reuters on Monday after a meeting with Fabius in Paris that France aimed to boost its force by 800 soldiers.

Asked about the figure of 800 additional troops, Fabius said the number "makes sense".

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian later told Europe 1 radio that France would support a planned African-led force with "around 1,000" troops. He did not specify whether that was the size of the reinforcement or the total number.

In Bangui, Djotodia welcomed France's determination to send troops, saying he had personally written to French President Francois Hollande to request military support.

"They have to come to help us. It is important," Djotodia told Reuters after a meeting with civil society groups.

RESOLUTION TO IMPOSE SANCTIONS

The United Nations estimates that 400,000 people have been displaced and 68,000 have fled to neighboring countries due to the spiraling violence.

French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said that French troops in CAR would restore law and order until the 3,600-strong MISCA force was fully operational. The African Union is due to take control next month of a 2,500-strong contingent already deployed by the Economic Community of Central African States.

The U.N. resolution would ask Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in coordination with the European Union and the African Union, to organize a donors conference to solicit contributions for a fund to help finance MISCA.

The resolution would also establish sanctions on Central African Republic, including an initial one-year arms embargo, and identify individuals to be placed under a travel ban.

It also requests Ban report back within three months on whether to transform MISCA into a U.N. peacekeeping mission. Ban said this month he had ordered officials to start preparing for the likely deployment of a mission of 6,000 U.N. peacekeepers and 1,700 police.

In Bangui, heavily armed Seleka fighters, wearing turbans and speaking only Arabic, speed around the riverside capital on pickup trucks, terrorizing the population despite the presence of French troops and regional peacekeepers.

Clashes between Seleka fighters and members of Christian self-defense groups known as "anti-balaka", or anti-machetes, displaced thousands of people last week around the town of Bouca, 290 km (180 miles) north of Bangui.

"We are extremely worried by the living conditions of these displaced people, packed into crowded camps and threatened by epidemics," said Sylvain Groulx, head of the MSF mission. "There are also the 'invisible' ones who have fled into the bush and have no access to healthcare, food or drinking water."

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nicholas in New York, Marion Douet in Paris, and Daniel Flynn in Dakar; editing by Elizabeth Piper and Mark John)

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