PARIS/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - France will triple the number of its soldiers in the Central African Republic to 1,200 to bolster security after months of violence, the war-torn nation’s prime minister said on Monday.
The mineral-rich but impoverished country of 4.6 million people has descended into chaos since Seleka rebels, many of them from neighboring Chad and Sudan, ousted President Francois Bozize in March.
Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told him the reinforcements would arrive once the U.N. Security Council adopts a resolution backing the force, which France hopes will occur in early December.
“We spoke about the security question. France has 410 soldiers now in Bangui and that will be strengthened by 800, to take the number to 1,200 - more if needed,” Tiangaye told Reuters after meeting Fabius in Paris.
French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said Paris would reinforce its Central African Republic presence, but did not confirm Tiangaye’s figures. He said that until an African Union force of 3,600 troops - known as MISCA - was fully operational, French troops would start trying to restore law and order.
“Basically our force will in the first instance be a bridging force, before the African force is fully operational, and after that ... we will support the African force,” he told reporters after U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson briefed the 15-member Security Council on Monday.
“Today, nothing is possible in Central African Republic without restoring law and order,” Araud said. “So that is an absolutely priority ... that’s why we are going to help the African force do the job,” he said.
The U.S. State Department estimates that nearly 400,000 people have been displaced and 68,000 have fled to neighboring countries since Seleka leader and interim President Michel Djotodia lost control of his loose coalition of warlords.
The violence has increasingly pitted the mainly Muslim fighters of the Seleka rebels against Christian militias. Christians make up half the population and Muslims 15 percent.
There is currently a 2,500-strong regional peacekeeping force in Central African Republic deployed by the Economic Community of Central African States. The African Union is due to take charge of that force in December and boost its size.
The French Foreign Ministry did not confirm Tiangaye’s comments.
“This meeting enabled the CAR PM to discuss the very worrying situation in CAR and the necessity to respond to it with a strong mobilization by the international community in support of MISCA, to which France will play all its part,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said.
Araud said he would circulate a draft resolution among Security Council members later on Monday that would authorize and provide support for the African force and give U.N. assistance for the country’s political transition. It would also authorize the French deployment.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said on Twitter that the council should authorize a strong mandate for the French and African troops to “expand presence, protect civilians, confront terrorizing militia.”
The resolution will also ask U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report to the council in three months on the likely transformation of the AU force into a U.N. peacekeeping force.
Ban said this month he had also ordered officials to start preparing for the likely deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping mission. The initial strength should be 6,000 troops and 1,700 police, with an option of increasing the size to 9,000 troops if the situation worsened, Ban added.
Tiangaye said the French troops would help secure the road from neighboring Cameroon to the riverside capital, Bangui, allowing supply trucks into the landlocked country. They would also be used in the northwest and in support of African troops across the country where civilians are not safe.
“What is unacceptable is that the situation has become worse and there are multiple crimes against humanity in the country and my concern is to put an end to this as quickly as possible,” he added.
Eliasson told the Security Council on Monday that Central African Republic was becoming a breeding ground for extremists and armed groups.
“If this situation is left to fester, it may develop into a religious and ethnic conflict with long-standing consequences, even a civil war that could spread into neighboring countries,” he said.
Rights group Amnesty International warned on Monday that the crisis was spinning out of control.
“The international community must take action before it is too late to ensure that the abuses come to an end and that CAR isn’t catapulted into the international spotlight because it became a human catastrophe,” Amnesty Secretary General Salil Shetty said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Peter Cooney