French President Francois Hollande has said his troops will work to stop the Central African Republic splitting in two and endeavour to disarm rival fighters engaged in months of inter-religious killing.
Arriving in the capital Bangui from Nigeria, Hollande met the interim president and religious leaders, and addressed French troops, the Reuters news agency reported.
“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.
French forcees 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.
‘Much remains to be done’
Thousands of Muslims have fled northeast from the capital towards the border with Chad, creating a de facto division of the country which the UN 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.
Speaking in Geneva after two months in charge of civilian protection for the UN 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.
Current efforts to tackle the crisis are far from adequate and the new UN mission must have the capability to tackle this crisis
“When the situation of the people who are escaping is so difficult, the UN 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.
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 mobilising the entire international community.”
Samba-Panza has called for the creation of a UN peacekeeping mission.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expected to report next week on the possibility of transforming MISCA into a UN mission, a move supported by Amnesty International.
“Current efforts to tackle the crisis are far from adequate and the new UN mission must have the capability to tackle this crisis,” said Amnesty’s Africa Director Netsanet Belay.
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 the deployment began in December.