EU launches Central Africa military operation

1st April 2014, Comments 0 comments

The European Union officially launched its delayed military mission to the Central African Republic on Tuesday, seeking to bolster French and African forces that have failed to end months of Christian-Muslim violence.

The 1,000-strong force, dubbed EUFOR RCA, will work to restore security to the capital Bangui during a six-month mission, with a view to handing over to a United Nations peacekeeping operation or African troops, the EU said.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the operation was meant to address the "huge challenges" facing the CAR, whose crisis began a year ago when the mostly Muslim rebel group Seleka overthrew the government.

The leader the rebels installed as president, Michel Djotodia, proved unable to control his former fighters, some of whom went on a campaign of killing, raping and looting.

That led members of the Christian majority to form vigilante groups known as "anti-balaka" (anti-machete), leading to a wave of religious and ethnic killings across the chronically unstable former French colony.

Djotodia has since stood down under international pressure, and Catherine Samba Panza was named interim president but she too has struggled to restore stability.

The peacekeeping forces in the country -- around 2,000 French and 6,000 African troops -- have meanwhile struggled to prevent what the United Nations has described as ethnic cleansing against the Muslim minority.

"It is vital that there is a return to public order as soon as possible, so that the political transition process can be put back on track," Ashton said in a statement announcing the deployment of the EU force.

EUFOR RCA -- originally due to deploy in late March was delayed by insufficient troop and aircraft commitments from the EU's 28 member states -- will operate in Bangui and its airport and cost an estimated 25.9 million euros ($40.6 million), the EU said.

- Probe of Chadian killings -

Highlighting the problems that have beset peacekeeping efforts so far, Samba Panza launched a probe Tuesday into the killing in Bangui at the weekend of at least 24 people by Chadian peacekeepers.

"We have requested investigations be launched to establish exactly what happened" on Saturday, she said on an official trip to Paris.

"As soon as we have those facts, we will see who was responsible for these incidents."

Chadian troops had entered Bangui to repatriate compatriots who wanted to flee the chaos in the capital and opened fire in still-unclear circumstances.

According to local officials and witnesses, they fired rockets at civilian homes during a flare-up that left at least 24 dead and around 100 wounded.

The bloodbath was the worst known incident involving foreign troops since French and African peacekeepers deployed late last year.

- 'Fired indiscriminately' -

Chad is major power broker in the neighbouring CAR and its peacekeepers have been accused of bypassing the African peacekeeping force MISCA chain of command and protecting ex-Seleka fighters.

The MISCA force has said that on Saturday the Chadian troops opened fire in response to a grenade attack but residents and members of "anti-balaka" denied it.

The incident has enraged Christians and prompted hundreds of Bangui residents to flee, fearing a wave of retaliatory violence.

"It appears that Chadian soldiers fired indiscriminately at a crowd following an incident," Cecile Pouilly, spokeswoman for the UN human rights office, told reporters Tuesday, stressing that her office was "still trying to confirm the exact affiliation of these soldiers".

The UN refugee agency meanwhile said it was prepared to help evacuate some 19,000 Muslims at risk of attack by anti-balaka fighters.

"What we don't want is to stand by and watch people being slaughtered," UNHCR spokeswoman Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba told reporters in Geneva.

"The only thing keeping them from being killed right now is the presence of (international) troops."

According to UNHCR numbers, 637,000 people in total are now displaced inside the country, including 207,000 in Bangui, while 82,000 mostly Muslim Central Africans have streamed into neighbouring countries in the past three months.

© 2014 AFP

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