CAR violence: French troops reach town of Bossangoa

Internally displaced people gather in the Don Bosco Center outside Bangui (7 Dec 2013)
Image caption Thousands have been displaced by the violence around Bossangoa

French troops have reached the town of Bossangoa in the Central African Republic, which has been paralysed by communal fighting.

France is deploying 1,600 troops to help end the fighting in the country, alongside a larger African Union force.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the BBC the mission was aimed at creating stability to enable humanitarian aid to arrive.

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

Francois Bozize was overthrown by a rebel alliance known as Seleka in March. Its leader, Michel Djotodia, took over as president.

Armed gangs, mainly former Seleka rebels, now control most of the landlocked country.

Recently the violence in the chronically unstable country has taken on a sectarian tone, with Muslim and Christian communities pitted against one another.

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

French President Francois Hollande said he believed security could be restored within six months.

But when asked about the future role of Mr Djotodia, he said: "You cannot leave in place a president who has been unable to do anything and who has even let things happen."

Thousands stranded

Around 80 French troops reached Bossangoa late on Saturday.

Some 30 people have been 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.

Image caption Some 600 French soldiers were on the streets of the capital, Bangui
Image caption One in 10 Central Africans have fled their homes
Image caption The Red Cross says almost 400 people have died in the past few days in Bangui alone
Image caption The largely Muslim Seleka rebels have been accused of atrocities against Christian communities

These civilians, mostly women and children, are crammed together on the dusty ground with no shelter, 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.

"We accelerated our operations on Thursday to respond to the violence," Mr Le Drian said, adding that French troops were working with Congolese troops in Bossangoa who are part of the AU force.

The size of the AU force is to rise to 6,000 troops.

Some 40,000 Christians have sought refuge around a church in Bossangoa, which lies 300km (190 miles) north of the capital. About 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 earlier on Saturday, our correspondent says.

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.

'Everything is destroyed'

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 largely Muslim rebels controlling much of the country have been accused of atrocities against Christians, and fighting between Muslim and Christian militias has broken out in the capital, Bangui, and elsewhere.

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

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

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

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 Seleka rebels.

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

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

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.

The CAR's Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye said the international troops were a good start but were not sufficient to stabilise the country in the long term.

He told the BBC the situation in his country was so chaotic he had been unable to speak to Mr 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 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.