The Central African Republic (CAR) is at risk of spiraling into genocide as armed groups incite Christians and Muslims against each other in the virtually lawless country, senior UN officials have told the Security Council.
The landlocked nation of 4.6 million people has slipped into chaos since northern Seleka rebels seized the capital, Bangui, and ousted President Francois Bozize in March this year.
Rights groups say both sides may have committed war crimes.
"More and more you have inter-sectarian violence because the Seleka targeted the churches and the Christians, so now the Christians have created self-defense militias and they are retaliating against the Muslims," said French UN Ambassador Gerard Araud after a briefing by UN rights and aid officials.
Adama Dieng, UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, John Ging, director of operations for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and Ivan Simonovic, UN assistant secretary general for human rights, informally briefed the 15-member Security Council on Friday.
"We are seeing armed groups killing people under the guise of their religion," Dieng told reporters after the meeting, which was organised by France and Rwanda.
"My feeling is that this will end with Christian communities, Muslim communities killing each other which means that if we don't act now and decisively I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring," he said, describing the current situation as "total chaos".
Central African Republic is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium, but decades of instability and the spillover from conflicts in its larger neighbours have left the country mired in cycles of crises.
The African Union plans to deploy a 3,600-member peacekeeping mission, known as MISCA, in the country. It would incorporate a regional force of 1,100 soldiers already on the ground and is unlikely to be operational before 2014.
The 15-member Security Council adopted a resolution on October 10 asking UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to submit a report within 30 days to outline possible international support to a planned African Union peacekeeping mission.
It also asked Ban to include "detailed options for international support to MISCA, including the possible option of a transformation of MISCA into a United Nations peacekeeping operation, subject to appropriate conditions on the ground".
Araud said the Security Council should eventually consider plans for a UN peacekeeping force of 8,000 to 10,000 troops.
"The situation in Central African Republic is horrendous, the state has collapsed and this country is now simply plundered, looted, the women are raped, people are killed by thugs. The country has fallen into anarchy," he said.
France has a small force in Bangui securing the airport and its local interests. French diplomatic sources have said France would be ready to provide logistical support and increase its troop numbers to between 700 and 1,200 if needed.
Eugene Richard Gasana, Rwanda's UN ambassador, said his country backs sending a UN force and that descriptions of the events reminded him of Rwanda's genocide.
"I had the impression it is like in 1994 at home," Gasana told reporters.
The Security Council on Tuesday approved a proposal by Ban to send 250 military personnel to the capital Bangui and then increase that force to 560 troops so they can deploy to areas outside the capital where there is a UN presence.
Given the urgency of the situation, Ban suggested that as an interim measure the initial 250 troops could be temporarily redeployed from another UN peacekeeping operation. The guards would provide perimeter security and access control.