It was meant to be a short, sharp military intervention to bring stability back to a warring African nation.
But on Tuesday French politicians voted to extend the country’s military presence in the Central African Republic (CAR), with the situation in France's former colony showing little sign of improvement.
A spokesman for Central African Republic president Catherine Samba-Panza welcomed the news, “rejoicing that France was coming to the Central African Republic’s help”.
France sent a force of 1,600 troops to CAR in December following an explosion of inter-religious violence between the country’s Christians and Muslims.
That force is due to increase by an additional 400 troops, supporting a 6,000-strong African Union peacekeeping mission.
But the mandate for the French mission, named Sangaris, was due to come to an end in April.
'Worse than imagined'
Ahead of the vote, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius moved to defend France’s record in CAR.
"If Operation Sangaris had not been launched, there would have been genocide in the Central African Republic," Fabius said on France 2 television. "The French were right to intervene.”
But despite the government's defence of the mission, opposition lawmakers allege that there has been little success on the ground.
"Nothing has been resolved, the country is still on fire," said former labour minister Eric Woerth, a lawmaker from the centre-right UMP party of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
"We have avoided a bloodbath, a massacre," Woerth said, but added that there is "no state, no judiciary, no police, no schools".
President François Hollande had initially predicted a “fast” outcome to France’s operation in CAR, but with the country sliding into what top UN human rights official termed “ethnic-religious cleansing”, hopes of a swift solution have faded.
France now faces a long fight to stop the nation of 4.5 million people from splitting in two, with scant support from Western allies.
"It will take longer than expected because the level of hatred and violence is worse than we had imagined," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted last week. "No-one can accept partition. It must be stopped."
‘We have no choice but to go’
Meanwhile, for CAR’s civilians a constant fear of violence has become a way of life, despite the enduring presence of French and African troops.
“These soldiers provide security, but they don't really go into the back streets...There, we live in terror,” Flora, a PK-12 resident, told FRANCE 24.
Muslims and Christians used to live peacefully side-by-side in PK-12, but now the district is heavily divided between the Christian majority and the few Muslims who remain.
“We consider this a religious war, if the Muslims come here, there are Christians ready to attack them with stones,” says Ludovic, a member of PK-12’s Christian community.
Thousands of CAR’s Muslims have already fled the conflict, which began after the mostly Muslim rebel group known as Seleka seized power in a coup before going on a rampage of looting sprees, raping and murder.
That triggered revenge attacks by armed Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka.
Numbering a little under 3,000, PK-12's last remaining Muslims have sought refuge around the local mosque – their belongings piled high by the roadside as they wait for safe passage out.
“We have no choice but to go and find somewhere safe to take refuge,” said one anonymous Muslim resident waiting to flee.
“We've been here for one and a half, two months and we haven't been able to go...it's horrible.”
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-02-25