France has suffered its first casualties in the Central African Republic but Paris insisted it remained committed to its risky military operation to help quell a wave of intercommunal violence paralysing the country.
President François Hollande visited Bangui on Tuesday evening on his way home from the Nelson Mandela memorial in Johannesburg to meet CAR leaders and show his support for the 1,600 French troops now deployed in the capital and other towns.
“We knew this mission was dangerous, but it is necessary to end the carnage,” he told reporters on his arrival.
His visit came some 24 hours after two French soldiers were killed in a clash between their patrol and gunmen near Bangui airport late on Monday night.
The soldiers’ deaths highlighted the dangers of the French intervention, launched last week with UN Security Council approval to help an existing 2,500-strong African regional force restore stability to the CAR.
Hundreds of people have died and some 400,000 have been displaced in clashes between Muslim and Christian communities.
Media reports from Bangui on Tuesday said a mosque in the city had been torched in continuing outbreaks of violence. Aid officials report that some 500 people have been killed over the past week in the capital. The number of people killed in the more remote rural areas remains unclear.
A statement from the Elysée Palace said Mr Hollande restated “his complete confidence that French forces, alongside the African forces, can re-establish security in the CAR, protect the population and guarantee access for humanitarian aid”.
Jean-Yves Le Drian said French and African forces were “progressively re-establishing the calm and security that the country needs”. He said there were no plans to increase the number of French troops.
French forces deploying in the former colony are under orders to disarm the militias and armed gangs that have been spreading chaos.
The main confrontation is with fighters linked to Seleka, a loose band of Muslim rebels that in March overthrew former president François Bozizé, a Christian, and installed current President Michel Djotodia. They are opposed by Christian groups known as the Anti-Balaka – balaka means machete.
Mr Hollande said at the weekend that France’s short-term aim was to end the violence and disarm the militias to allow humanitarian agencies to get food and medical aid to the population. That would pave the way for a strengthened 6,000-strong African force to be formed to ensure stability.
But Mr Hollande said the longer-term aim was to replace Mr Djotodia and his regime. “I don’t want to point fingers, but we cannot keep in place a president who was not able to do anything [to stop the violence], or worse, who let things happen. The idea is to head as fast as possible towards elections,” he said.
France is concerned that a power vacuum in the CAR could attract organised Islamist groups to set up in the country and destabilise neighbouring states, prompting Mr Hollande to launch his second military intervention in Africa within a year. The CAR operation is on a smaller scale than the intervention in Mali in January to oust Islamist groups threatening to take over the country, also a former French colony.
But the early casualties in Bangui – only seven French troops have been killed to date in Mali – underlined the difficulty facing French forces in the highly volatile CAR, described by French officials as being in a virtual state of anarchy.
The deteriorating security situation prompted the US to offer a strategic airlift to African countries deploying their own troops in the CAR. The Pentagon on Monday said it had offered transport aircraft to Burundi to transport equipment and soldiers and would extend the offer to other countries in need. Washington said that the aircrews manning the aircraft would be the only US military personnel involved, even briefly during the landing and take-off, directly in the conflict.
Barack Obama, US president, told the CAR government in a message broadcast on a regional radio station to “join” the voices praying for peace and “to arrest those who are committing crimes”.
Additional reporting by Javier Blas in Johannesburg
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