France gets UN mandate for intervention in Central African Republic
Move given increased urgency as latest clashes leave more than 100 dead
French soldiers patrol in an armoured personnel carrier during fighting in Bangui, Central African Republic, yesterday. The French army deployed 250 troops to the capital after clashes broke out between former rebels and militias. Photograph: Emmanuel Braun/Reuters
France began a military intervention in the Central African Republic last night, following a unanimous vote by the UN Security Council yesterday authorising the former colonial power to restore order and protect civilians in the troubled country.
France will act in support of troops from Cameroon, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are already present in the country, President François Hollande said in a televised address.
The intervention is intended to disarm Muslim and Christian militias who have terrorised the country’s 4.6 million citizens since a coup last March.
“The situation in Central Africa has become alarming, even terrifying,” Mr Holland said.
“Massacres are being perpetrated at this very moment, including in hospitals. Each day women and children are attacked and thousands of displaced people seek shelter.”
Mr Hollande said the number of French troops would be doubled to 1,200 “within days, or within hours”. The French intervention has been named Sangaris, after a blood-red butterfly that lives in the forests of central Africa. It had been expected to start at the close of the two-day “Summit on Peace and Security in Africa” at the Élysée Palace today and tomorrow.
But yesterday’s events speeded up French action. The mainly Christian “anti-Balaka” (anti-machete) militia fired heavy artillery on Bangui, and clashed with fighters from the mainly Muslim Séléka (“alliance”) in Sango, the language of the country, near the national assembly.
A Reuters witness and an aid worker said at least 105 people had been killed. Some 250 French troops were deployed in the city after the violence began.
This is the seventh French intervention in the country since “operation Barracuda” overthrew Emperor Bokassa in 1979. Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the UN, said “thugs” had already begun fleeing Bangui with their “loot” in anticipation of the French deployment. The republic has seen a military coup approximately once every decade, usually followed by pillaging and anarchy until the arrival of French paratroopers.
Mr Hollande dispatched 4,800 French troops to Mali last winter, to prevent Islamist guerrillas allied with al-Qaeda from creating a “new Afghanistan” in northwestern Africa. The stakes are smaller in the republic, the most unfortunate of France’s former African colonies. Mr Hollande refused to intervene last March, when then president François Bozizé was overthrown by Séléka militiamen from the northern “region of three borders”, where the republic, Chad and Sudan meet.
The militia was in theory merged with the army, but militiamen continue to spread panic as they drive around Bangui in pick-up trucks, heavily armed and wearing fatigues, red berets and sunglasses. Muslims comprise 10 to 20 per cent of the population of the republic. They dominate commerce, and tend to be more affluent than the Christian majority. Christians established the anti-Balaka militia to defend themselves.
A poor match for the Séléka, they turned instead on the Peul minority, who are mostly Muslim livestock farmers. A cycle of massacres and reprisals set in. The anti-Balaka militia are believed to have killed 12 people in a village 50km from the capital on December 2nd. Ten surviving children, lacerated by machetes, are being cared for in the paediatric hospital in Bangui.
By seeking to stop such bloodshed, France strengthens its reputation as the gendarme of Africa, following earlier interventions in Ivory Coast, Libya and Mali. But as former foreign minister Dominique de Villepin pointed out in Le Monde, “To think that a free and democratic election will solve the problems” of a failed state like the CAR “would be guiltily naïve”.
France pushed hard for the UN resolution. Washington gave the republic a low priority and wanted an African-only force, probably because there is no al-Qaeda involvement.
The intervention risks being ill-financed by voluntary contributions.