France to send troops to Central African Republic amid genocide warning

26 November 2013 7:47 PM

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France to send troops to Central African Republic amid genocide warning

DAKAR, Senegal -- France has promised to send 1,000 troops to the near-anarchic Central African Republic, pledging Tuesday to help bring stability as human rights groups and United Nations officials warn that the seeds of genocide are being planted in the former French colony.

Whether the French forces will save lives, though, depends on how far the foreign soldiers venture outside the tumultuous capital, Bangui, to the lawless provinces where mostly Muslim rebels have been attacking Christian villages, and Christian citizen militias have emerged in recent months to launch retaliatory violence.

Tuesday's announcement comes less than a week after French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned "the country is on the verge of genocide."

It marks the second time this year that France has sent troops to a former colony in Africa. Thousands of French soldiers launched an offensive in January to free northern Mali's major towns from the control of al Qaeda-linked militants. After that success, the French military is now stepping up its efforts in Central African Republic, a lawless country in the heart of the continent.

No other country is expected to take action if former colonizer France doesn't with all its military resources, said French analyst Francois Heisbourg, of the Foundation for Strategic Research think-tank in Paris.

"We are a prisoner of history and geography: This is our neighbourhood, and yes, we have troops in the area for historical reasons," Heisbourg said. "And given the humanitarian situation and the political pressure, there is no way we can avoid doing this."

However, it is not clear how much can be accomplished by 1,000 French troops in a country of 4.6 million people where many roads have not been repaved since independence from France in 1960.

An international presence is needed given the limited capacity of Central African Republic's own security forces, said Christian Mukosa, a researcher with the Africa division of Amnesty International, who praised France's announcement.

"It's really very important that the French don't stay only in Bangui, but go to Bouca and other hot spots where currently there are serious human rights abuses and where populations are at risk," he said.

In the northwest town of Bouca, nun Angelina Santaguiliana said she lives in fear of a rebel attack on her Catholic mission. Already some 2,400 people have sought refuge there in the past week, crowding the floors of the church at night and taking shelter under trees on the mission's yard.

"If the French come to help with disarmament in our region, it will be a good thing, but if there is fighting it would make things worse," she said by telephone Tuesday, with the sounds of children wailing in the background.

More than 35,000 other people have sought refuge at another Catholic mission in Bossangoa, according to church officials there.

Central African Republic's current chaos started late last year when a number of rebel groups joined forces to form the coalition known as Seleka. In March the rebels overthrew the president of a decade and installed their leader in power. But rebel leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia now exerts little control over the renegade fighters in the provinces, most of whom are Muslim and who are accused of committing killings, torture and rape, and forcibly recruiting child soldiers.

France has warned for months about the deteriorating security in Central African Republic, and its pledge of troops also follows warnings from the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide who called the crisis in Central African Republic "one of the worst human rights and humanitarian crises of our time."

The toll of the conflict is difficult to determine as the most vicious attacks have taken place in small villages in the remote countryside. About 1 in 10 people have been displaced from their homes, according to international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders. Details only trickle in when survivors make their way to safety and the insecurity in the region makes it impossible for aid groups to determine how many have died. Many of the rebels accused of committing atrocities have been integrated into the national army, rendering the country's security forces unable to combat the cycle of violence.

Reports of killings of civilians and looting emerged in Bangui soon after the rebel invasion in March. The crisis deepened several months later when the rebels began targeting the area of Bossangoa, the home region of ousted President Francois Bozize and many of his perceived supporters. Some villages have been completely decimated with homes burned to the ground. The Christian self-defence militias that emerged also are accused of attacking Muslim civilians, many of whom also have suffered under the Seleka rebellion already.

In one attack documented by Human Rights Watch, fearful residents only came out of their houses when a local official reassured them it was safe to talk to the Seleka rebels. Five of those who did venture out were then tied together and grouped under a tree. The fighters shot them one by one, Human Rights Watch said. When one victim did not die, his throat was slit.

A French defence official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the mission, has said its mandate would authorize French troops to end such massacres and restore order throughout the country.

France already has about 420 soldiers in the country, though they are based in the capital of Bangui and primarily provide security at the city's airport. A regional peacekeeping mission also has helped patrol the capital and has a presence in a limited number of communities across the north.

A plan to transform that regional effort into one led by the African Union went into effect in August, but not all of the expected 3,000 troops are yet on the ground. The stepped up French deployment is envisioned as a "bridging force" until an African force is fully operational and France would take a back-up role.

French diplomats also plan to circulate a draft UN Security Council resolution that will call for additional support for the AU-led mission. The French participation would be expected to last about six months, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 radio in announcing the troop commitment.

France, a former colonial power in West Africa, has a greater military presence in the region than any other Western country, with thousands of troops in countries including Senegal, Chad, Ivory Coast and Gabon.

At the height of this year's operation in Mali, France had about 4,000 troops whose mission was to dislodge rebels and al Qaeda-linked militants who were advancing on the capital last winter. About 2,800 French soldiers are still there.

"In Mali there was an attack of jihadists, terrorists who wanted to transform Mali into a terrorist state. This is a collapse of a country with a potential for religious clashes," he said. "France has international responsibilities, is a permanent member of the Security Council, has history with Central African Republic, and the United Nations is asking us to do it."


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