Huge African troop surge to tackle CAR fighting

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

The African Union is to increase significantly the number of troops it plans to send to the Central African Republic to help end communal fighting.

The size of the AU force will rise to 6,000, France said as it moved to boost its own freshly deployed troop contingent to 1,600.

At least 394 people have died in three days of fighting in the capital Bangui alone, the Red Cross says.

The CAR has been in turmoil since the president was ousted in March.

France has been sending in more troops as part of a UN-backed operation to keep peace between the Christian and Muslim communities.

The French statement came at the end of a two-day summit of African leaders in Paris. It followed the UN vote on Thursday for a greater French and African presence in the CAR.

President Francois Hollande, in an interview with French radio and TV, praised the AU commitment, explaining that the aim was to disarm the militias and restore security with a view to eventual elections.

Some 600 French soldiers were patrolling the streets of the capital on Saturday, although the centre of the city was still reported to be in the hands of the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel alliance.

French reinforcements arrived from western neighbour Cameroon during the day and armoured personnel carriers were visible on Bangui's roads.

Image caption French soldiers spread out around Bangui on Saturday.
Image caption Gunmen from the mainly Muslim former Seleka rebel coalition remain in the city.
Image caption As of Saturday, at least 394 people had died in the fighting in the capital.

The African Union already has an estimated 2,500 troops in the country and had been set to boost its size by 1,000. But a statement on the French presidency website said the AU had decided to extend its force to 6,000.

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Media captionFrench Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that plans advanced rapidly due to the escalation in violence

Michel Djotodia overthrew President Francois Bozize, with the backing of the Seleka. But armed gangs, mainly former Seleka rebels, now control most of the landlocked country.

An estimated 10% of CAR's 4.6 million people have fled their homes, while more than a million urgently need food aid, according to the UN.

The Muslim rebels have been accused of atrocities against Christians and fighting between Muslim and Christian militias has broken out in Bangui and elsewhere.

Christian communities have now set up so-called "anti-balaka" self-defence forces, most of them loyal to the ousted president.

'Everything has been destroyed'

The latest bloodshed in the capital is said to have started as militias loyal to Mr Bozize attacked the city.

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Media captionCAR Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye says more troops are needed to stabilise his country"

Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye told the BBC the situation in his country was so chaotic he had been unable to speak to President Djotodia since the violence had escalated on Thursday.

"Everything has been destroyed. We need to restore order before the administration can begin working again," Mr Tiangaye said.

The French president said he believed security could be restored within six months. But he was clear that the current leader could not remain in place.

"You cannot leave in place a president who has been unable to do anything and who has even let things to happen," Mr Hollande said.

The French mobilisation comes hard on the heels of an operation against Islamists linked to al-Qaeda who had seized control of northern Mali and were threatening the south of the country too.

In the open

Late on Saturday, around 80 French troops reached the town of Bossangoa, which has also been paralysed by sectarian fighting.

Some 30 people are reported killed there in the past three days and African peacekeepers have been struggling to help nearly 1,000 displaced civilians who have fled to their base.

These civilians, mostly women and children, are crammed together on the dusty ground and had no shelter when it rained on Friday night, the BBC's Thomas Fessy reports.

Basic medication is now being distributed but the people can only wait for a lull in the fighting to fetch food and water outside, he says.

Some 40,000 Christians have sought refuge around a church in Bossangoa, which lies 300km (190 miles) north of the capital. Meanwhile, 7,000 Muslims are stranded at a school located on the other side of the town.

No-one was moving on the main thoroughfare between the two locations on Saturday, our correspondent says.

The prime minister said he was concerned about the danger of sectarian fighting in Bossangoa and also of the risk of an epidemic because of the large numbers of civilians crowded into a small area.

The troops were a good start but were not sufficient to stabilise the country in the long term, he warned.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Saturday that as many as 9,000 peacekeepers would be required to move into the CAR, and he hoped they would eventually become a United Nations operation.