French troops in Central African Republic 'to avoid carnage'

French President Francois Hollande pays tribute near a flag-draped coffin bearing one of two French soldiers killed in Bangui
Image caption French President Francois Hollande paid tribute to the two French soldiers killed in Bangui

President Francois Hollande has defended France's military intervention in the Central African Republic - after two French soldiers were killed in the capital Bangui.

Speaking in Bangui, he said last week's deployment of 1,600 troops had been necessary to "avoid carnage".

The two French soldiers were killed in combat near Bangui airport.

The CAR has been in chaos since rebel leader Michel Djotodia ousted President Francois Bozize in March.

Fuelled by ethnic rivalries, the conflict has also now become sectarian in nature as he installed himself as the first Muslim leader in the Christian-majority country sparking months of bloody clashes between rival Muslim and Christian fighters.

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Media captionBBC Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman explains the background to the crisis

'Time to act'

On Tuesday, President Hollande said the French military involvement was "necessary if one wants to avoid carnage" in the impoverished African nation.

"It was time to act. In Bangui itself, nearly 400 people were killed. There was no time to procrastinate," he added, in a reference to the past week's bloodshed.

The two French soldiers - paratroopers - were killed on Monday night in a clash with identified gunmen.

They are the first French deaths since France deployed its troops in a UN-backed operation.

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Media captionCAR crisis - in 60 seconds
Image caption A Christian mob attacked a mosque in Bangui on Tuesday

Claude Bartolone, speaker of France's National Assembly, told reporters that the soldiers "were injured and very quickly taken to the surgical unit, but unfortunately they could not be saved".

The BBC's Thomas Fessy in the northern town of Bossangoa says French troops - along with African peacekeepers - launched an operation on Monday to forcibly disarm militiamen as well as predominantly Muslim fighters who claimed to be part of the new national army.

Tensions remain high in the country and more violence is feared, our correspondent adds.

Extra French troops were sent into the CAR last Friday after the UN Security Council backed a mandate to restore order "by all necessary measures".

The UN resolution followed a surge of violence involving Christian self-defence militias that had sprung up after a series of attacks by mainly Muslim fighters from the former rebel coalition.

The Red Cross said 394 people were killed in three days of fighting in Bangui. Many of the victims are believed to have been children.

The French army said it had restored some stability in the capital by Monday night.

Following a request from France, the US announced on Monday it would help fly African Union peacekeeping troops into the CAR.

Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered US forces "to begin transporting forces from Burundi to the Central African Republic," his spokesman said.

US President Barack Obama has called for calm and asked the CAR's transitional government to arrest those who are committing crimes.

France's defence minister has said fighters loyal to interim president Michel Djotodia must return to barracks and the other fighters would have to surrender their weapons.

Last week, Paris said the African Union would increase the size of its existing force of 2,500 peacekeepers to 6,000.

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

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