Hollande heads to CAR as losses underline mission risk

10th December 2013, Comments 0 comments

President Francois Hollande headed Tuesday to the Central African Republic on a mission to shore up the morale of a French intervention force after the death of two of the country's elite soldiers.

The first losses of the French campaign to pacify its former colony underlined the risks involved in a complex mission to disarm rogue rebels who have plunged the impoverished country into chaos.

Antoine Le Quinio, 22, and Nicolas Vokaer, 23, both members of the crack Eighth Parachute regiment based at Castres in southwestern France, died after a fierce firefight during a night patrol in the capital Bangui, where bloody sectarian clashes left hundreds dead last week.

Hollande was due to stop in Bangui on Tuesday evening, on his way back from Nelson Mandela's memorial, and was expected to stress that the soldiers' deaths would have no impact on the tactics or the size of the 1,600-strong French force.

In a statement earlier Tuesday, Hollande said the two paratroopers had given their lives to save many more.

The Socialist leader was due to meet in Bangui with Michel Djotodia, the country's interim president and the man who was instrumental in creating the chaotic current situation by leading the so-called Seleka rebellion that began 12 months ago.

The French troops are in the country to support an African contingent that is due to grow from 2,500 men. But so far it has been the French who have been at the sharp end of the operation.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian voiced confidence that the French force was sufficiently robust to get the job done.

On the incident that the led to the soldiers' deaths, he said: "There was an unusually violent confrontation. The two soldiers were brought back to the army hospital at the airport but they died of their injuries.

"There is no such thing as an easy military operation. There is always a lot of risk, but it is vital that we disarm these militias."

Violence resumes at lower level

French officials said Monday that Bangui had largely been cleared of marauding armed groups.

Lower-level violence resumed Tuesday however with Muslim-owned shops in the Combattants quarter of the town being looted. The owners were taken out of the area by African troops for their own safety.

AFP reporters witnessed armed men circulating on at least two pick-ups, while French troops had set up a roadblock on the main road north from the capital to check everyone coming in and out for weapons.

Bangui was last week the scene of horrendous violence with nearly 400 people killed, most of them clubbed or hacked to death.

The International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday gathered up more than 100 bodies and loaded them onto lorries for burial in a mass grave in the Bimbo quarter of the capital.

Mahmoud, who had come into the centre of Bangui to buy water, fears the violence may recur. "They smashed up the Muslims' houses. My children are in a monastery and me and my wife are staying with Christian neighbours.

"This place is an open wound -- it has to be treated immediately or gangrene will set in."

Humanitarian catastrophe

Djotodia's Seleka captured Bangui and ousted president Francois Bozize in March. Djotodia became the first Muslim president, but while some Seleka members remained loyal to him, others started terrorising the population and government forces were powerless to stop them.

Months of massacres, rapes and looting followed.

A third of the population needs food aid and the UN children's agency UNICEF said that nearly 480,000 people -- mostly women and children -- had been displaced since the March coup.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported Tuesday that an estimated 108,000 people had been displaced in recent weeks in Bangui alone, many of them opting to sleep outdoors under pouring rain rather than risk spending the night in their homes.

Hollande under fire at home

In Paris, the centre-right opposition raised questions over the length of the intervention, how it will be financed and France's alleged isolation.

Similar objections were made to France's intervention in Mali earlier this year but polls suggested most voters backed that operation against armed Islamist groups, which has largely been deemed a success.

Seven French military personnel have died in Mali to date.

The government has played down the additional costs involved in the Central African Republic deployment, which it hopes will be partly covered by funding from the European Union.

Criticism that France is acting alone will be partly offset by the announcement, made overnight, that the United States is to provide C-17 transport aircraft to fly African peacekeepers from Burundi into the Central African Republic.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament Tuesday that the French commitment in the country would be a matter of months, not years.

© 2013 AFP

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