BANGUI (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande flew to Central African Republic on Friday to tell its leaders and French forces stationed there that France will work to stop the country splitting in two.
France’s parliament voted on Tuesday to extend the mission, despite tepid popular support at home for a military operation in the former colony where tens of thousands of people have been killed and around a million forced from their homes.
France sent troops four months ago - its force now numbers 2,000 - to the majority Christian country where Muslim Seleka rebels seized power last March and have since been pushed back by Christian “anti-balaka” militia.
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 the east and the north, 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 gathered in a helicopter hanger at Bangui airport.
He also said French troops would disarm militias and bandits that were “terrorizing the Muslim population”.
After addressing troops, Hollande was due to meet interim President Catherine Samba Panza as part of a brief stopover in Central African Republic on the way back from Nigeria which marked the centenary of its unification on Thursday.
Hollande said that the situation in Bangui had “significantly improved” since French troops arrived, echoing the observations of some aid workers.
But the Red Cross said on Friday that more than 10 people had been killed in the capital this week, adding that some bodies had been mutilated, with their genitals stuffed into their mouths.
The next phase of the French operation, named Sangaris after a local butterfly, will be to deploy roughly half of its troops beyond the capital, according to a presidential source.
As well as the northeast, that would also include a key supply route into Cameroon.
“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 more than 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.
Amy Martin, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said there had been clashes in Kaga-Bandoro, about 200 km (120 miles) north of Bangui, 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.
Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Robin Pomeroy