French troops arrive in CAR capital in effort to curb violence

Aid workers on ground say Muslim-Christian clashes continuing in Bangui and Bossangoa

France rushed troops to Central African Republic today, its second major African intervention in a year, to stem Muslim-Christian violence that has claimed over 185 lives this week.

Hundreds of soldiers started arriving from neighbouring countries, though Paris said a small detachment of French forces already stationed at Bangui airport killed a number of unidentified fighters nearby yesterday, hours before being given a UN green light for the mission to restore order.

Joanna Mariner, part of an Amnesty International team in Bangui, said that she had reports of pillaging and killing in the 3rd district. “The French are patrolling on the main axes, but the city isn’t yet secure,” she added.

Bangui residents were cautiously optimistic over French deployments but a witness in PK12, a neighbourhood, said mainly Muslim ex-rebels had killed several people in raids on houses. The Archbishop of Bangui said 39 people were killed last night and today.


Meanwhile, clashes also continued in Bossangoa, to the north, where at least 30 people had been killed, according to an aid worker. The former French colony has slipped into chaos since mainly Muslim rebels seized power in March, leading to tit-for-tat violence with the Christian majority.

The violence yesterday was the worst the capital has seen during the crisis. 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.

The French operation was codenamed Sangaris, after a red butterfly found in the country. “The operation has effectively started,” defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RFI radio.

Witnesses and aid workers said at least 105 people were killed in Bangui yesterday. At least 12 civilians died in an attack outside the capital earlier in the week.

Mr Le Drian said it was "not impossible" that France could wind down its presence after six months, but Central African Republic 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,” Mr Tiangaye told RTL radio.

In a sign of broadening involvement, Britain said it would provide aircraft to transport French equipment.

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.