In just the last three years in Africa, French forces pummelled Muhammad Qadhafi’s troops, helped topple Ivory Coast’s holdout ex-president and ousted al-Qaeda-linked militants from the rocky Malian desert. Now, in Central African Republic, French troops are facing a more complex and dangerous mission — disarming militias awash in automatic weapons in cities and towns, where would-be fighters are tough to distinguish from civilians and sectarian tensions are running high.
A former colonial power, France has 1,600 troops in Central African Republic after beefing up its military presence last week in response to a U.N. resolution authorising outside force. Muslim leaders question whether the French are also forcing Christian militiamen who fled into the bush after attacking the capital to hand over their weapons. To give up knives would leave Muslims defenceless during a future attack, they say, placing little faith in the French to protect them.
The capital, Bangui, remained on edge Wednesday, but with French troops patrolling, some families ventured out to bury their dead.
The perils of the French mission were starkly exposed this week when two French soldiers were killed in a nighttime foot patrol in the capital.
French President Francois Hollande, who initially said the mission would take six months, said on Wednesday that a beefed-up French deployment would last “until the African force takes over.”