Central African Republic: French troops expand operations

The BBC's Thomas Fessy: "The risk of mass killing in... Bossangoa is real"

French troops in the Central African Republic are expanding their operations, in an effort to restore order following sectarian fighting.

French reinforcements patrolled the capital Bangui as others entered from Cameroon, an army spokesman said.

Troops are also heading for the divided northern town of Bossangoa.

France is increasing its presence in the CAR to 1,600 troops to help peacekeepers deal with rising violence between Muslim and Christian militias.

Start Quote

We have also started the first missions from Bangui towards the north of the country”

End Quote Gilles Jarron French army spokesman

The CAR has been in turmoil since Michel Djotodia ousted Francois Bozize in March and installed himself as the first Muslim leader in the Christian-majority country.

The mainly Muslim Seleka rebel coalition which brought him to power has been accused of atrocities against Christians.

Hopes on France

At the end of a summit on Africa in Paris, French President Francois Hollande called for the establishment of an African rapid deployment force within months.

Mr Hollande said Africa must ensure its own security in the future - France was ready to help with training and weapons.

French army patrol in Bangui, Central African Republic, 7 Dec 2013 The French reinforcements reached Bangui after crossing from Cameroon

Speaking alongside Mr Hollande, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: "I'm particularly grateful to all the countries contributing soldiers to Misca [Mission in the Central African Republic] and in particular to France for boosting its military support."

The French deployment follows a UN Security Council vote authorising its troops to join Misca.

The French leader said that by the end of Saturday, a total of 1,600 troops would be on the ground, 400 more than previously announced.

"It's a number that will remain as long as necessary for this mission," Mr Hollande said.

Bangui residents are venturing out into the streets of the capital after two days of sectarian fighting that has left about 300 people dead.

Guide to Central African Republic

  • Crisis has affected entire population of 4.6 million people
  • 10% have fled their homes
  • 25% need food aid
  • Unknown number killed - several hundred in one area in two weeks
  • Too dangerous to go to rural areas where most killings occur
  • 3,500 child soldiers
  • Most schools and hospitals outside capital looted and not functional
  • Currently 2,500 African peacekeepers and 600 French troops - to be increased to 3,600 and 1,200

Source: UN

French troops also deployed in the western city of Bouar, 370km (230 miles) north-west of Bangui, AFP news agency reported.

Reuters news agency quoted French army spokesman Gilles Jarron as saying: "We have also started the first missions from Bangui towards the north of the country."

The French contingent, he added, had now reached its full strength.

The BBC's Thomas Fessy in Bossangoa - where 40,000 Christians sought refuge after raids by Muslim militia - says French troops are due to arrive there on Saturday night to relieve African peacekeepers.

Gunfire can still be heard, our correspondent says, and no humanitarian aid is being distributed.

Thousands of displaced Muslims are staying at a school on the other side of the town, he adds.

Tents for displaced people beside Saint Antoine de Padoue cathedral in Bossangoa, 25 November Displaced people are staying near Bossangoa's cathedral

The communal violence has taken a huge turn, with a huge religious element to the crisis now, our correspondent says.

Thursday's violence is thought to have begun when Christian militias, loyal to ousted President Bozize, launched multiple attacks from the north - sparking retaliatory attacks from mainly Muslim armed fighters loyal to the new leadership.

Residents spoke of gun battles in their neighbourhoods and hundreds fled to the airport seeking the protection of some of the French troops based there.

"We live like animals here," says Mareus Faiton-Haena

The head of the Red Cross in the CAR, Pastor Antoine Mbao Bogo, said his staff had collected 281 bodies as of Friday night and expected the number to rise significantly.

Christian communities have now set up "anti-balaka" self-defence forces, most of them loyal to Mr Bozize.

"Balaka" means machete in the local Sango and Mandja languages.

The Selekas have been officially disbanded and some of them integrated into the army, but correspondents say it is often not clear who is in charge, even in the capital.

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