The French army said it has restored some stability in the capital of Central African Republic after battling gunmen on Monday
in an operation to disarm rival Muslim and Christian fighters responsible for killing hundreds since last week.
Shooting erupted near Bangui’s airport in the morning when gunmen refused to hand over weapons and French forces later came under attack by former rebels in the city centre, but by evening there were no armed groups on the streets, the army said. « There are no more patrols by armed groups in the city and the population is no longer threatened by the terror that these groups caused, » said Colonel Gilles Jaron, spokesman for the French army joint staff in Paris. « The spike in violence has gone down and we have returned to a more stable situation. We are still deployed in Bangui to carry out our mission, » Jaron said.
Paris boosted its military presence to 1,600 troops over the weekend as waves of religious violence swept its former colony.
At least 465 people have been killed in Bangui alone since Thursday, according to Red Cross officials.
U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has authorized military transport aircraft to carry troops to the country from Burundi to support the French-led effort, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Hagel authorized the use of the planes on Sunday after being asked for airlift assistance by French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the spokesman said in a statement.
Central African Republic has spiralled into chaos since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in March and embarked on months of looting, raping and killing. Seleka’s leader, Michel Djotodia, installed as the interim president, has lost control of his loose band of fighters.
The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor said any party involved in the violence could be prosecuted.
Christian militias and gunmen loyal to ousted president Francois Bozize attacked Bangui on Thursday, the same day the U.N. Security Council authorised France to use lethal force to help African peacekeepers already struggling to restore order. In an early test of France’s resolve, its troops traded fire with gunmen near the airport on Monday morning.
« Many armed elements who held positions in Bangui have left their positions to go back to their barracks, » said Jaron, who called the incident « insignificant ».
However, French troops again came under attack later in the day in the PK 5 neighbourhood from suspected Seleka fighters.
« It was an attempt to intimidate.
We responded with 20mm cannon, then sent in a platoon to carry out clean-up operations, » said Captain Guillaume Fresse, spokesman for the French forces in Bangui.The French operation is running smoothly though its most difficult phase lies ahead, France’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gerard Araud, told reporters in New York.
« The French forces have reestablished law and order in Bangui, even if there is still some looting in the periphery, » said Araud, president of the U.N. Security Council this month, after briefing the council on the situation. With French forces on checkpoints and on patrol, crowd violence erupted in several districts of Bangui.
In the Castor neighbourhood, a Reuters reporter saw a crowd attack a man they accused of being a disarmed Seleka fighter after French soldiers removed weapons from a house there and then left. At a mosque in the PK 5 neighbourhood, the resident imam showed journalists the bodies of two men who he said had been beaten to death by Christians.
French troops have been broadly welcomed in a city struggling to emerge from a period that saw fighters, both Christian and Muslim, go door-to-door killing civilians.
As French warplanes and helicopters flew low overhead, residents reappeared on the streets and some shops and market stalls reopened for the first time since last week.
« Yesterday we couldn’t even come here to cross this road because the Seleka came and set up a base here, » said a woman who gave her name only as Armelle. « Thank God the French came. If there’s peace, things will get better. »
However, the United Nations said it had counted some 72,000 people displaced by the violence staying in various sites in Bangui, including at the airport, where French troops and African peacekeepers have their base.
« There are still conflicts in some neighbourhoods. There’s still killing, » said Amy Martin, head of the U.N. aid agency OCHA in Bangui. « For now, we don’t have the feeling that people are ready to go home.
Information began to trickle in from parts of the country cut off from the capital since last week.
A humanitarian worker in the town of Bossangoa said the number of dead there from several days of violence between Seleka and Christian « anti-balaka » militias had risen to 38. France has sent two companies of troops to the town, Araud said. In Bozoum, in the northwest, U.N. officials received reports of dozens of dead, and there was also violence in the nearby town of Bocaranga. Humanitarian agencies and rights groups said the final toll was likely to be much higher.
BANGUI, Central, African Republic
Two French soldiers have been killed in the Central African Republic, officials said Tuesday, on the second day of an operation to disarm fighters sowing sectarian violence in the country.
The deaths come as the UN-mandated military operation there is being expanded with US logistical help.
The two paratroopers were fatally wounded while conducting a night patrol late Monday in the capital Bangui, French parliamentary speaker Claude Bartolone said. They were the first deaths suffered by French troops since they entered the African nation, an unstable former colony, last week to quell an upsurge in violence.
Although 1,600 French soldiers have been deployed, mostly to Bangui and mostly – until now – to little resistance, lawlessness reigns beyond their positions.
“They lost their lives to save many others,” French President Francois Hollande said in a statement expressing his “sadness” and “profound respect” over the soldiers’ deaths.
He added that he had “full confidence in the French forces committed – alongside African forces – to restoring security in the Central African Republic, to protecting the people and guaranteeing access to humanitarian aid”.
Hollande is to visit the Central African Republic late Tuesday, after attending a memorial service with world leaders in South Africa honouring Nelson Mandela.
Among the leaders gathered in Soweto will be US President Barack Obama, who on Monday made an appeal to the Central African Republic for calm and for its transitional government “to arrest those who are committing crimes.”
The US also said its military would provide C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft to fly African Union peacekeeping troops from Burundi to the Central African Republic to aid the French-led effort to restore security.
The reinforcements will add to 2,500 African Union peacekeeping troops already in the Central African Republic.
The French forces had deployed in the wake of days of horrendous fighting in Bangui in which nearly 400 people were killed. The stench of dead bodies still permeates some areas of the capital.
Most of the clashes were between Christian and Muslim militias armed with guns and machetes.
Bangui reported calm before deaths
The French military on Monday had said that Bangui was relatively calm after the start of operations to disarm fighters, with troops conducting vehicle and house searches for weapons.
French troops briefly exchanged gunfire with armed men near Bangui’s airport, but no casualties were reported in that encounter.
“We have started to go out because the French are here,” said Arlette Papaye, a local tradeswoman.
“We had remained holed up in our homes and cellars. We are hungry. The French must chase out the Seleka,” she said, referring to a former rebel group that still sows terror.
The country has been mired in chaos since a March coup in which Seleka, a mostly Muslim rebel group, seized power and toppled president Francois Bozize. A former Seleka leader, Michel Djotodia, took over as interim president.
Although Djotodia formally disbanded Seleka, rogue ex-rebels continued to roam towns and villages, pillaging and spreading violence. The soaring confrontationwith militias led some UN officials to warn of a possible genocide.
With the arrival of the French, many of the Seleka fighters have regrouped in Camp Beal in the centre of Bangui, a facility was assigned to them by the French forces.
France says deployment costs ‘minimal’
The military intervention has prompted some criticism at home in France at a difficult time for the French economy.
Hollande early this year had sent troops to another troubled African nation, Mali, to stop Islamists and Tuareg rebels from advancing on the capital Bamako.
But Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius 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 told France Inter radio.
France has also been anxious to avoid charges of meddling in its former African colony for political or economic reasons.
It has repeatedly emphasised it is ultimately Africa’s responsibility to tackle the various crises on the continent.
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 children’s agency UNICEF told AFP in Bangui that nearly 480,000 people – mostly women and children – had been displaced since the March coup.
- French army battles militias in Central African Republic’s capital – Reuters (reuters.com)
- French army deploys in western, northern Central African Republic (foxnews.com)
- Violence persists in C.African Republic as Hollande visits (trust.org)
- Two French soldiers killed in Central African Republic (worldnews.nbcnews.com)