In December 2013, France intervened in an African civil war for the second time in a year, again under impeccable United Nations authority, but it now faces an increasingly difficult predicament in the Central African Republic (CAR). The first intervention, in Mali, was a success for French President François Hollande, as French and African Union (AU) troops restored stability and blocked an imminent takeover by the Maghreb-based and al Qaeda-linked extreme Islamist group Ansar Dine. In CAR, however, several constraints obtain, such as local conditions, French public reluctance to commit more troops, and the unwillingness of the European Union and the United States to help. These are making it more likely that CAR will collapse into what a U.N. official has called ethnic-religious cleansing, even though the country has no history of religious strife. Even partition now looms, despite desperate efforts by CAR Interim President Catherine Samba Panza; half of CAR’s 4.6 million people are Christians, and 15 per cent, or about 700,000, are Muslims. The fighting has taken at least 2,000 lives and displaced about a million people, many of whom are barely surviving in terrible conditions; 80,000 Muslims have reportedly fled the north to Chad and the west to Cameroon. The killings have been extremely brutal, and Christian militias, called the anti-balaka (Sango for anti-machete), are massacring Muslim civilians in revenge for killings of their co-religionists by Muslim militias called the Séléka, which engaged in such killings themselves after overthrowing President François Bozizé in March 2013.

French troops in CAR, however, have not done everything they could have done, even if their numbers have been raised from 1,600 to 2,000, and their task is to help a 6,000-strong African Union force; the narrow streets in the capital Bangui and dense vegetation in the rural areas make heavy military equipment and air power ineffective, and more ground troops are needed. Human Rights Watch emergency director Peter Bouckaert has told the BBC that he saw French troops sitting still while civilians were murdered barely yards away, and other eyewitnesses speak of Chadian troops escorting Séléka fighters across the border; the Chadian army has lost men and has reportedly killed CAR civilians. In addition, western interest in the country is low; it is landlocked and of little strategic importance to the west. In other regions of the world, nevertheless, concern is growing, and West Asian governments are paying closer attention. A failure of political will in France, the EU, and the United States could make CAR yet another target for what could well be externally-funded Islamist extremists.

This editorial has been corrected for a factual error.

The earlier sentence said: “ … 80,000 Muslims have reportedly fled the north to Chad and the east to Cameroon.” It should have been west.

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