French troops trade fire with armed men in Central Africa
What you need to know:
- Paris warned that the task of disarming fighters would be difficult as former Seleka rebels who seized power in a March coup shed their combat gear to avoid detection, and clashed sporadically with soldiers dispatched to quell violence in the unstable country
- French President Francois Hollande, who sent troops into the west African country of Mali earlier this year to stop Islamists and Tuareg rebels from advancing on the capital Bamako, has said France cannot turn a blind eye to the massacres perpetrated in the Central African Republic
- France has more than 5,300 troops stationed in a string of bases across western and central Africa, according to defence ministry figures
- Mr Djotodia has accused forces loyal to the exiled Bozize, who still has allies in the coalition government and has hinted he had not given up on his old job, of being behind the vigilantes
French troops charged with disarming rebels in Central African Republic on Monday exchanged fire with armed men near Bangui airport, AFP photographers said.
The shooting lasted a few minutes, and there was no initial indication of casualties. The French army said Monday it had begun the process of disarming rebels in the strife-torn country.
Meanwhile, Paris warned that the task of disarming fighters would be difficult as former Seleka rebels who seized power in a March coup shed their combat gear to avoid detection, and clashed sporadically with soldiers dispatched to quell violence in the unstable country.
Announcing the beginning of the disarmament, the army’s general staff said the process was going smoothly for the moment, despite a brief shoot-out Monday morning between soldiers and armed men near the airport.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that the disarmament would not be “an easy task”.
“The problem is that many of the former Seleka (rebels) have traded their uniforms for civilian clothes... and it is difficult to identify individuals,” he said on France Inter radio.
France is deploying 1,600 soldiers to its former colony, which has plunged into chaos since the Seleka rebels seized power, with reports of widespread rape and public killings taking place.
Mr Fabius said former Seleka rebel leader turned interim president Michel Djotodia had appealed to his former fighters to give up arms, but some have gone rogue and imposed a reign of terror in the countryside.
The capital Bangui has also been the scene of bloodshed over the past three days, and nearly 400 people have been killed in the violence, Fabius said.
“We have explained to everyone by radio and through other available media that they should bring back weapons,” Fabius said.
“If this does not yield sufficient results, force will be employed,” he said.
French President Francois Hollande, who sent troops into the west African country of Mali earlier this year to stop Islamists and Tuareg rebels from advancing on the capital Bamako, has said France cannot turn a blind eye to the massacres perpetrated in the Central African Republic.
But the military intervention has prompted criticism from the public over its cost at a difficult time for the French economy.
MINIMAL DEPLOYMENT COST
Fabius on Monday said the cost of the deployment was “minimal” as the French troops were drawn from bases in other African countries.
“If we did not intervene quickly it would have cost much more,” he said.
“If in place of a few hundred killed, there had been tens of thousands of deaths we would have had in any case to intervene in a country that was totally destroyed.”
France has also been anxious to avoid charges of medding in its former African colony for political or economic reasons.
It has repeatedly emphasised that it troops are being dispatched to the CAR to reinforce a 2,500-strong African Union peacekeeping mission and that it is ultimately Africa’s responsibility to tackle the various crises on the continent.
There have been no major incidents since the French deployment. French troops came under fire near the airport on Sunday and Monday, but there were no indications of casualties.
France has more than 5,300 troops stationed in a string of bases across western and central Africa, according to defence ministry figures.
The UN childrens’ agency UNICEF told AFP in Bangui that nearly 480,000 people — mostly women and children — had been displaced since the country of 4.6 million people plunged into chaos after the March coup.
But the deadly attacks witnessed before the French troops rolled in have ceased and life in Bangui is slowly returning to normal.
Djotodia, the first Muslim leader of the CAR, disbanded Seleka when he took power, but while some militiamen remained loyal to him, others wreaked havoc.
FORMATION OF VIGILANTE GROUPS
Local Christians responded by forming vigilante groups and the government was never able to assert its authority over the Christian-majority country.
Reports have highlighted a series of horrors, with security forces and militia gangs raping with impunity, carrying out public killings and razing entire villages.
Djotodia has accused forces loyal to the exiled former president Francois Bozize, whom he had toppled, of being behind the vigilante groups.
London-based rights group Amnesty International has said that many involved in the latest violence are child fighters recruited by the former rebels. It said some were reportedly armed with axes and iron bars.
France said its troops will begin to disarm rebels in the Central African Republic on Monday, as terrified residents in the capital Bangui holed up in their homes after a wave of sectarian violence left nearly 400 dead.
Speaking on Sunday evening, the French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that the operation to disarm rebel groups would begin “tomorrow morning”.
“The period of impunity is over,” he said, speaking on French radio station RTL.
French army spokesman Colonel Gilles Jaron said the contingent had reached its full strength of 1,600 by Sunday and troops were on patrol “throughout” Bangui as well as other towns and forest areas.
He noted tension between the French soldiers and former Seleka rebels who have been terrorising citizens since carrying out a March coup.
“I think they have understood they will have to be re-grouped, disarmed, that the French force is imposing itself in the capital at their expense, which is creating tension,” said Colonel Jaron.
Communal violence that erupted after the coup — pitting Muslims and Christians against each other in tit-for-tat attacks — flared in Bangui on Thursday, killing nearly 400 people.
“We have counted 394 dead in the last three days,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on France 3 television.
UN children’s agency UNICEF told AFP in Bangui nearly 480,000 people, mostly women and children, had been displaced within the country since it plunged into chaos after a March coup.
French forces received a triumphant welcome Saturday as residents cheered and danced as they deployed across parts of the country in a bid to stem the chaos.
But traumatised residents were eager to see the troops move deeper into the neighbourhoods.
“We’re waiting for the French to enter our districts and be sure we won’t encounter any of those gunmen,” one resident told AFP.
“We’re all exhausted from living in fear. We want this to end,” said another, declining to give his name.
In comments on national radio, Central African Republic interim president Michel Djotodia thanked the former colonial power for its military help.
Djotodia, the former chief of a motley coalition of mostly Muslim fighters known as Seleka, took power after ousting Francois Bozize nine months ago.
Asked about Djotodia’s future, Mr Hollande said: “We can’t leave in place a president who hasn’t been able to do anything, who let things happen.”
Mr Djotodia, the first Muslim leader of the mostly Christian country, disbanded Seleka, but while some militiamen remained loyal to him, others went rogue and imposed a reign of terror in the countryside.
Local Christians responded by forming vigilante groups and the government was never able to assert its authority over the sprawling, landlocked country.
PERPETUATION OF VIOLENCE
Reports have described a series of horrors, with security forces and militia gangs razing villages, carrying out public killings and perpetrating widespread rapes.
Mr Djotodia has accused forces loyal to the exiled Bozize, who still has allies in the coalition government and has hinted he had not given up on his old job, of being behind the vigilantes.
Violence soared last week France announced it would send another 400 soldiers while the African Union plans to boost the regional MISCA force also on the ground to 6,000 troops from a planned 3,600.
Mr Hollande said the job of the French and African troops would be “to disarm militias who are acting like gangsters, raping women and even killing people in hospitals”.
“I believe we can quickly put a stop to the current atrocities and massacres.”
Despite the president’s optimism, an opinion poll published by OpinionWay on Sunday in France showed that a strong majority of French people — 64 percent — disapproved of the intervention.
Mr Hollande ordered the launch of operation “Sangaris” — named after a local butterfly — on Thursday after winning a UN Security Council mandate.
It comes on the heels of a French operation in Mali, where some 4,000 troops intervened in January to drive out Islamists who had seized the north of the west African nation.
The European Commission said in a statement it will deploy its humanitarian air service — ECHO Flight — to open up supplies into and out of Bangui.
The first plane, with space for five tonnes of cargo, will arrive in neighbouring Cameroon on Monday.