France says backs evacuation of Muslims in CAR 'as last resort'
PARIS (Reuters) - France said on Tuesday it supported the evacuation of Muslims under threat of reprisals in Central African Republic "as a last resort", saying that the priority was to save lives despite concerns it could lead to the division of the country.
The United Nations said on April 1 it was trying to evacuate 19,000 Muslims urgently from the capital Bangui and other parts of Central African Republic who are surrounded by anti-balaka Christian militia threatening their lives.
Anti-balaka forces control major routes to and from Bangui as well as many towns and villages in the southwest, the U.N. refugee agency said. The militia has become more militarized as it steps up attacks on Muslims and African Union peacekeepers.
The militias have previously attacked convoys of Muslims who were being evacuated by private convoys or Chadian troops to Chad or the north of the country. With 2,000 troops in its former colony, France could provide security for any evacuation.
The head of the French contingent, General Francisco Soriano, said last week he was against an evacuation, saying: "Our role is to protect populations and do everything so that they can live where they have always lived."
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal told reporters on Tuesday: "France believes that moving populations must be a last resort.
"Nevertheless, it is helping to ease limited evacuations in agreement with populations, notably when their security is under threat or humanitarian aid access cannot be guaranteed."
He said the priority was to move people within CAR and not out of the country.
Peter Bouckaert, emergency director at Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter that France's change of position, standing ready to assists with the relocation of threatened Muslims, would save lives.
"The urgency today is to save lives," Nadal said. "The objective is to protect people. The admission of failure is the national reconciliation, which is taking more time."
Mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power a year ago, perpetrating abuses on the majority Christian population that triggered waves of revenge attacks, leading to thousands of deaths and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
Seleka rebels gave way in January to an interim civilian government. But the government - backed by the 2,000 French and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers - has been unable to halt attacks by anti-balaka militias on Muslims, thousands of whom have fled to neighbouring countries or sought shelter in camps.
The United Nations and aid agencies have warned of ethnic cleansing with some suggesting that relocating people could lead to partitioning CAR into a Muslim north and Christian south.