France plans to send 1,000 troops to the Central African Republic to support African soldiers battling to prevent the former French colony from sliding into chaos, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday.
International officials have warned that the increasing violence between Christians and Muslims in the country could turn into ethnic massacres and even a genocide.
“We will do it in a support capacity and not arrive first, like we did in Mali,” Le Drian told Europe 1 radio, estimating the mission would last six months in a country that has been racked by turmoil for a year after rebels rose up and overthrew the Government.
France’s Ambassador to the United Nations said on Monday that his country, which already has 450 troops on the ground to protect French citizens, was ready to act as soon as the UN Security Council gave it a mandate. A vote is expected next week.
Ambassador Gerard Araud said a draft resolution circulated by France proposed a Franco—African intervention over the deployment of UN peacekeepers.
UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson warned that the Central African Republic was sinking into “complete chaos” and called on the Security Council to boost the 3,000—strong African Union—led force already in the country and turn it into a peacekeeping force.
Le Drian said an African intervention force was already being put together by the Central African Republic’s neighbours. The country shares borders with six countries: Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of the Congo and Cameroon.
The Central African Republic has been mired in a humanitarian crisis since the Seleka coalition of militias rebelled against the government in December and overthrew then—president Francois Bozize in March.
The rebel alliance was officially disbanded in mid—September but has been refusing to disarm and has continued to attack villages.
About 400,000 of the country’s 4.5 million people have been displaced and scores of civilians have been killed.
There is mounting violence between the mostly Muslim Seleka, which has now become the de—facto national army, and Christian vigilante groups, set up as self—defence units.
“We continue to see violence all around. On some days it is more intense in some locations and other days it takes place in other locations,” said Ellen van der Valden, the head of medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the country.
“There is a religious component to this fighting, because the army is made up of one religion and the self defence groups are of the other religion,” she added.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that hygiene conditions are “appalling” for the tens of thousands of civilians who have fled to the bush. Most are living in makeshift huts or out in the open, exposed to the elements.
“I have never been in a country where malaria is so high. Half of the patients we are treating are sick with malaria. This is why we are so worried about people in the bush because they don’t have access to treatment,” said van der Valden.
She added that children are suffering from significantly high rates of malnutrition and that not enough aid was reaching people outside the capital Bangui.
“The need is so much bigger than what we can deliver,” said van der Valden, calling for the international community and the United Nations to step up its emergency response.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week that the country was “on the verge of genocide.” France has taken a more openly interventionist approach to conflicts in its former African colonies in recent years. In January, France intervened to stop the advance of al—Qaeda—linked militants in Mali.
In that instance, France was responding to a call for help from the country’s interim government.
It was not clear how a French intervention in the Central African Republic would be received by the Seleka.
The situation there was “in no way similar to Mali,” Le Drian said. “Here, we’re talking about the collapse of a state and a trend towards sectarian confrontation.” Resolving the conflict would ultimately require “replacing” President Michel Djotodia, who was installed by the Seleka rebels but has been unable to control them.
“The Prime Minister and President Djotodia are transitional authorities, which have difficulty in keeping a collapsing state afloat,” Le Drian said.