France extends CAR mission as UN warns of new bloodbath

25th February 2014, Comments 0 comments

French lawmakers on Tuesday approved an extension of the country's military operation in the Central African Republic as the UN warned of a potential new bloodbath in the troubled African state.

Despite misgivings among some that French troops have been put into an uncontrollable situation in the former colony, deputies in the National Assembly voted 428-14 (with 21 abstentions) in favour of authorising the mission, which was launched in early December, to continue beyond April.

The approval had been anticipated with deputies almost unanimously agreeing that, whatever their reservations, pulling out the 2,000 French troops now in the CAR was not a viable option.

It came as the UN's refugee body said more than 15,000 people were surrounded and under threat of armed attack in locations in the northwest and southwest of the country.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva that the vulnerable -- mainly members of the minority Muslim community -- were "at very high risk of attack" and urgently needed better security in the form of more international peacekeepers.

Although the situation in CAR remains extremely volatile, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday it would have been a lot worse if France had not intervened.

"If the Sangaris Operation had not been launched, the CAR would today be in a genocide situation," Fabius said on France 2 television ahead of the vote in the National Assembly. "The French were right to intervene."

French troops are supported by a 6,000-strong African Union force known as MISCA and France is pushing hard for the international forces to be transformed into an official UN peacekeeping force.

Paris is also lobbying its European partners to provide more financial and logistical help, with limited results so far.

The European Union has pledged to deploy up to 1,000 troops but negotiations on which countries will provide them are dragging on in Brussels and it remained unclear Tuesday when any of them would arrive in the CAR.

The UNHCR's Edwards said a much bigger force was needed to halt the cycle of violence.

"Their numbers are far too low considering the size of the country and the scope of the crisis," he said.

- 'Country still on fire' -

CAR descended into chaos last March after mostly Muslim rebels overthrew the government, initiating a spiral of sectarian bloodletting.

That has yet to be stemmed but opinions differ over whether the situation is improving or deteriorating.

The head of Sangaris, General Francisco Soriano, said on Monday that the French intervention had resulted in a huge reduction in violence and denied allegations that ethnic cleansing was taking place.

He however admitted that some Muslims "are scared and some have been displaced".

A poll published Tuesday showed that 58 percent of French voters disapprove of the military action and opposition lawmakers have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of the country's intervention.

"Nothing has been resolved, the country is still on fire," said Eric Woerth, a former minister from the centre-right UMP party of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.

"We have avoided a bloodbath, a massacre," Woerth said. "But there is no state, no judiciary, no police, no schools -- there's nothing left."

Another former UMP minister Pierre Lellouche said he had been tempted to vote against the extension because of the government's lack of a clear exit strategy.

"We have underestimated the degree of violence," he said. "There are arms everywhere in Bangui and Chinese-made grenades are being sold at 35 centimes (50 cents) in the markets," he said.

"Our soldiers are in an impossible situation."

CAR's interim president, Catherine Samba Panza, has called for international troops to remain in the country until elections due by March 2015.

The Muslim minority has been blamed by many Christians for the violence that followed the March 2013 coup which saw Michel Djotodia become the country's first Muslim leader.

His regional peers forced him to step down in January and sent in peacekeepers to support the French effort but Christian-dominated vigilantes known as anti-balaka are proving difficult to rein in. "Atrocities have become frequent," the UNHCR's Edwards said Tuesday.

Relief organisations have warned that the flight of Muslims, who controlled a large share of trade and farming, could exacerbate a major food crisis in one of the world's poorest countries.

© 2014 AFP

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