France striving to stop Central African Republic split, Hollande says

BANGUI Fri Feb 28, 2014 4:52pm EST

French President Francois Hollande speaks and greets troops at the French military base in Bangui's Mpoko international airport February 28, 2014. REUTERS/Rey Byhre

French President Francois Hollande speaks and greets troops at the French military base in Bangui's Mpoko international airport February 28, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Rey Byhre

BANGUI (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande told the Central African Republic on Friday that his troops would work to stop the country splitting in two and endeavor to disarm rival fighters engaged in months of inter-religious killing.

Arriving in the capital Bangui from Nigeria, where he attended unification celebrations, Hollande met the interim president, religious leaders and addressed French troops.

"We need to stop score-settling, establish the authority of government, allow it to engage in dialogue and avoid any temptation to partition the east of the Central African Republic," Hollande told French soldiers in a helicopter hangar at the airport in Bangui.

France sent troops four months ago to the majority Christian country where predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power last March and have since been pushed back by Christian "anti-balaka" - "anti-machete" in the local Sango language - militia. Its force now numbers some 2,000 soldiers.

France's parliament voted on Tuesday to extend the mission, despite tepid support at home for a military operation in the former French colony where thousands of people have been killed and around a million forced from their homes.

Thousands of Muslims have fled northeast from the capital towards the border with Chad, creating a de facto division of the country which the U.N. human rights chief has said now faces "ethnic-religious cleansing".

In addition to French troops, 6,000 African Union peacekeepers (MISCA) are also deployed and up to 1,000 EU soldiers are still to arrive.

However, speaking in Geneva after two months in charge of civilian protection for the United Nations in Bangui, Philippe Leclerc said there were still not enough troops on the ground and the lack of security was forcing the evacuation of civilians, contributing to the ethnic cleansing.

"When the situation of the people who are escaping is so difficult, the U.N. has no other possibility than trying to evacuate them to safer places or ensure safe passage to places that they believe are safe," Leclerc said.

BEYOND BANGUI

Despite improved security in Bangui since the French troops arrived, the Red Cross said more than 10 people had been killed in the capital this week, with some bodies found mutilated, with their genitals stuffed into their mouths.

"Admittedly much remains to be done," interim President Catherine Samba-Panza said after a meeting with Hollande and Muslim and Christian leaders.

"But we know, thanks to your intervention, thanks to France's support, a certain number of instruments were employed by the United Nations Security Council which today are mobilizing the entire international community," she said.

Samba-Panza has called for the creation of a U.N. peacekeeping mission.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expected to report next week on the possibility of transforming MISCA into a U.N. mission, a move supported by Amnesty International.

"Current efforts to tackle the crisis are far from adequate and the new U.N. mission must have the capability to tackle this crisis," said Amnesty's Africa Director Netsanet Belay.

Amy Martin, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bangui, said there had been clashes in Kaga-Bandoro, about 200 km (120 miles) north of the capital, earlier this week.

"The anti-balaka have been following the Muslims and monitoring their positions and try to attack them as they move," she said.

The next phase of the French operation will see roughly half of its troops deployed beyond Bangui, in the northeast and on a road link to Cameroon, a key lifeline for food and other imports, according to a presidential source.

"Clearly this is more risky and we are more exposed," the source said. Three French soldiers have been killed since deployment began in December.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders, (MSF) said over 8,000 refugees had arrived in southern Chad since late January.

"The World Food Programme and Chadian authorities should intervene in all urgency to distribute food to these people who are completely destitute," said MSF's Sarah Chateau in Chad.

(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Emma Farge and Joe Bavier; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)