France boosted troop levels in Bangui Friday, a day after winning UN support for a Central African Republic mission and as thousands gathered at the airport to seek French protection after the Red Cross said at least 281 people had died in clashes.
France on Friday launched its second military intervention on the African continent this year as troops were deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR) capital of Bangui in a bid to try to stem the inter-religious violence that has spread across the landlocked nation since rebels ousted president François Bozizé in March.
Thousands of people crowded into a field outside the main airport in Bangui in the hope that the French soldiers stationed there would protect them, a day after more than 100 people died in clashes Thursday between the mainly Muslim former rebels now in charge of the country and a mix of local Christian militiamen and other fighters loyal to Bozizé.
The Red Cross said Friday that it had collected 281 bodies from two days of fighting in Bangui but that many more had probably been killed in the clashes.
Those fleeing crowded close to the runway, laying out woven mats in front of the airport's barbed-wire fence.
“They are slaughtering us like chickens,'' Bangui resident Appolinaire Donoboy told the Associated Press. Donoboy said his Christian family remains in hiding as Muslim militias went door to door.
The former French colony has slipped into chaos since the now-disbanded mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the March coup, leading to tit-for-tat sectarian violence with militias from the Christian majority.
French operation limited
France, which halted an advance by al Qaeda-linked insurgents on the Malian capital Bamako this year, began assembling a new 1,200-strong force for CAR just hours after winning UN backing to go ahead on Thursday.
“The operation has effectively started,” Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told FRANCE 24 sister station RFI (Radio France Internationale). He said one company had already arrived in Bangui from a French base in nearby Gabon and that a helicopter group was due to be in place later in the day.
Watch FRANCE 24's exclusive report on the clashes in Bangui
Speaking hours after securing UN backing for the mission, President François Hollande vowed that the French operation would be limited in time, with the aim of passing responsibility to African forces relatively soon.
Le Drian said it was “not impossible” that France could wind down its presence after six months, but the Central African Republic's Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye said it was likely the troops would have to remain longer.
“Six months seems a bit short to me; in my view we are looking at a year. If it (the French force) manages to sort out the problems, so much the better, but I would prefer it to stay in place for a year,” Tiangaye told RTL radio.
French troops to double
France had some 650 troops based at Bangui airport on Thursday – a number Hollande said would soon come close to doubling with reinforcements from French bases in neighbouring countries.
The UN resolution authorised the deployment of up to 3,600 African and 1,200 French troops.
French soldiers reportedly clashed with gunmen ahead of the UN vote, killing several near Bangui's airport.
The Central African Republic is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium but decades of instability and spillover from conflicts in its larger neighbours have kept it mired in crisis.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the annual Africa-France summit starting in Paris on Friday would discuss CAR operations, including the French military's handover to African- or UN-led forces in the future.
Asked about his previous warning that there was a risk of "genocide" – which critics have called alarmist– Fabius said:
“The term is debatable, I won’t employ it again as genocide is something quite specific ... (but) we have all the elements of a major crisis and powder keg,” noting that there had been what he called “the start of a religious confrontation”.
Fabius said French forces would initially focus on securing Bangui and roads leading to Chad and Cameroon. They would also deploy with African forces to other towns including Bossangoa, about 300 km north of the capital, which witnesses said had come under heavy fire from militias on Thursday.
Michel Djotodia, former leader of the now-defunct Seleka rebel alliance, is CAR’s interim president, but he has struggled to control his loose band of fighters, many of whom come from neighbouring Chad and Sudan.
Asked whether Djotodia was legitimate and should remain in power, Fabius said he had taken power “in a debatable way” but added: “I think we don’t need more difficulties by adding the departure of the president.”
He said, however, that elections should begin by early 2015 at the latest.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP and AFP)
Date created : 2013-12-06