Soldiers killed in CAR ‘died for France’, Hollande says
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The French president arrived in the Central African Republic on Tuesday amid a French-led mission in the restive country and immediately praised the two French soldiers slain overnight who he said, “gave their lives to save the lives of others.”
Paris is leading a military operation in the CAR in a bid to stem the inter-religious violence in the troubled former French colony.
“Antoine and Nicolas died for France on a worthwhile mission. They gave their lives to save the lives of others”, the French president said on his arrival of paratroopers Nicolas Vokaer, 23, and Antoine Le Quinio, 22, who were killed overnight during an operation to disarm rebels in the capital Bangui.
“This is obviously an emotional moment,” he added. “Two soldiers have died serving on an ongoing mission that other soldiers are engaged in, right at this moment and right where I am, to pacify this city and this country.”
France to stay the course
Hollande, who had flown from South Africa where he was attending a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, said the deaths of the two paratroopers would not alter the course of France’s military mission to CAR.
“We knew it was going to be a dangerous mission,” he said. “But it is necessary to prevent further carnage.”
Bangui was under curfew on Tuesday evening, while French fighter jets patrolled overhead.
Hollande, accompanied by his Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, is also due to hold talks with interim President Michel Djotodia while in the country, whose Seleka movement captured Bangui and ousted president François Bozizé in March.
The Seleka rebels mostly come from CAR’s Muslim minority and while Djotodia officially disbanded the Seleka alliance, in reality, the former rebel leader lost control of his rebel fighters.
They then began terrorising the population and government forces proved powerless to stop the bloodshed that followed. Meanwhile, Christian vigilante groups known as the “anti-balaka” sprang up to defend their communities but some have also committed revenge attacks on Muslim communities.
France deployed troops to the CAR on December 5 following a green-light from the United Nations.
They arrived in the wake of days of horrendous violence in Bangui in which nearly 400 people were killed.
France now has around 1,600 troops in the CAR. Their mission is to support a larger African contingent, currently of 2,500 soldiers, which is expected to grow in the coming weeks.
"I think that with those numbers we will be able to restore peace and security across the country," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said earlier on Tuesday.
"Vital to disarm militias"
"But there is no such thing as an easy military operation,” he added. “There is always a lot of risk but it is vital that we disarm these militias."
According to the UN children's agency UNICEF, nearly 480,000 people – mostly women and children – have been displaced since the March coup.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said on Tuesday that an estimated 108,000 people had been displaced in recent weeks in Bangui alone.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman Jean-Yves Clemenzo told reporters that the organisation was gravely concerned by the situation.
"There are only two hospitals operating and there are not enough medical staff," he said.
Opposition in France
The military intervention comes at a difficult time for the French economy and has prompted some criticism from Hollande's political foes.
Opposition centre-right lawmaker Christian Jacob raised concerns over "the length of the intervention, France's isolation and financing."
Similar objections were made to France's intervention in Mali earlier this year but polls suggested most voters backed that operation against armed Islamist groups, which has largely been deemed a success.
Criticism that France is acting alone will be partly offset by the announcement, made overnight, that the US is to provide C-17 transport aircraft to fly African peacekeepers from Burundi into CAR.
"The United States is joining the international community in this effort because of our belief that immediate action is required to avert a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in the Central African Republic, and because of our interest in peace and security in the region," a US Defense Department spokesman said on Monday.
The Pentagon offered similar assistance during the French intervention in Mali, providing cargo planes and intelligence.