French troops positioned in Bangui on 22 December 2013.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
France sends troops to bolster the African force as sectarian bloodletting continues and the humanitarian situation deteriorates. Following escalating violence and warnings of the country being on the brink of genocide (p. 19920) a French-drafted UN resolution was passed on December 5th giving the green light for military intervention.
Michel Djotodia, the country’s first Muslim president and the leader of the Séléka alliance of rebels which ousted former president Francois Bozize in March (p. 19633), had officially disbanded the rebels but while some Séléka members remained loyal to him, others started terrorising the population and government forces were powerless to stop them. Months of massacres, rapes and looting followed, with locals forming Christian vigilante groups, known as the anti-Balaka, in response. Muslim and Christian communities that previously lived peaceably together have started fighting each other and tens of thousands of people have taken refuge in churches and mosques fearing attacks, according to aid workers.
CAR Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye warned there was an urgent need to disarm all sides. “Religious communities that have always lived together in perfect harmony are now massacring each other,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying (12/12).
France authorized Operation Sangaris (named after a local butterfly) and deployed 1,600 French troops to work alongside MISCA (the African-led Stabilization Mission) which is African Union (AU) mandated but which has not been effective to date because of lack of funds and training. Their combined mission is to try to restore order and make the chronically unstable situation safe enough for relief supplies to be brought in. The World Food Programme (WFP) said that one-third of the population was faced with a situation of food insecurity and the harvests had been lost.
The UN resolution gives the French-backed African force a 12-month mandate and the right to use “all necessary measures” to restore order. However, UN leader Ban Ki-moon warned that up to 9,000 troops could be needed to quell violence that has spread through the country of 4.6m, of whom 80% are Christian. In an interview with French radio late on December 7th, Ban said the UN must “sooner or later” have a permanent peacekeeping presence in the country. “I sincerely hope that MISCA will be transformed into a UN peacekeeping force,” news agencies reported him as saying.
Amnesty International on December 19th disclosed a casualty figure of about 1,000 since the beginning of December in acts of violence between the men of the former Séléka rebel movement and the anti-Balaka. The killings took place mainly in the capital, Bangui, and the north-western town of Bossangoa. Bangui was the scene of horrendous violence on December 5th with UN reports of 450 people killed, most of them clubbed or hacked to death. In its report, however, Amnesty said former Séléka rebels killed nearly 1,000 people in Bangui in revenge for Christian militia attacks. The anti-Balaka mililia went door-to-door in some parts of Bangui “and killed approximately 60 Muslim men”, Amnesty said.
“The de-facto government forces, known as ex- Séléka, retaliated on a larger scale against Christians in the wake of the attack, killing nearly 1,000 men over a two-day period and systematically looting civilian homes. A small number of women and children were also killed,” the report said. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) gathered the bodies and loaded them onto lorries for burial in a mass grave in the Bimbo quarter of the capital. By the end of December the violence was estimated to have forced more than 700,000 people from their homes across the country – including more than 200,000 in Bangui alone. The country’s top Muslim and Catholic clerics jointly called for extra peacekeepers to be deployed, while US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was “alarmed” by the rise in fighting, AFP reported from Bangui (28/12). Fighting, that had abated significantly after the French and African forces started disarming the militia, erupted again in the last week of December sending hundreds of foreign nationals fleeing. Thousands of Chadians in particular, accused by some of backing Séléka, were leaving both by air and by land and had to be protected from jeering protesters by French peacekeepers. Senegal and Niger asked the International Office for Migration (IOM) for assistance in evacuating their nationals. The IOM warned that that the security situation in Bangui was “deteriorating” and that the “level of the crisis is expected to intensify in the coming days”, BBC news online (28/12) said.
France Acts Alone
With Operation Sangaris, France has launched its second major African intervention in a year (after the Mali operation). President Francois Hollande on December 10th said France’s action was dangerous but vital to avoid a bloodbath, during a visit to shore up morale after two elite French soldiers were killed. Hollande flew into curfew-bound Bangui from Johannesburg after attending Nelson Mandela’s memorial service (p. 19944). “France is not here… out of any self-interest,” Hollande said. “France has come to defend human dignity”. He described the bloodbath in Bangui as “terrifying”.
During his brief four-hour visit, Hollande held talks with Djotodia, whom he has previously accused of doing nothing to stop the sectarian violence. He also met with religious figures. 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”.
US President Barack Obama meanwhile authorised the release of $60m in military aid for the CAR saying the aid would be funnelled to France, the AU and other countries contributing forces. On December 19th, the US envoy to the UN, Samantha Power, held talks with Djotodia and other political and religious leaders on a visit to Bangui.
President Hollande has sought broader support for France’s mission in the CAR but EU leaders have decided to make a decision “in January” regarding a possible civilian mission. EU President Herman Van Rompuy praised France’s intervention, saying it had “helped avoid a civil war, perhaps even genocide”.
Hollande, however, cuts an increasingly isolated figure in his mission to coax European allies into military intervention in the CAR, the Independent (22/ 12) commented.
Belgium is the only country to have pledged military assistance after Germany dropped its proposal to send a medical evacuation plane. But the Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, said that France should expect “nothing else” aside from two transport planes. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, refused to send any soldiers to the CAR on December 20th, while Britain and Poland have also ruled out providing troops, though Poland offered a transport plane with crew.
The Europeans’ widespread refusal to enter the CAR comes as an embarrassing disappointment for the French government, whose Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, told the lower house of the French National Assembly earlier: “We will soon have troops on the ground provided by our European colleagues”.
Operation Sangaris has already had one blow to its public relations, after Le Figaro (21/12) published photographs of French soldiers from the 8th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, currently in the CAR, bearing Nazi slogans on their uniform.
France was also having to contend with accusations of unfair treatment by the ex- Séléka rebels as French troops sought to disarm both them and the anti-Balaka militia. Fabius on December 15th rejected accusations that the French army had precipitated the massacre of Muslims by disarming the ex- Séléka and leaving them at the mercy of Christian vigilante groups.
On December 22nd several thousand Muslim supporters of Séléka protested in Bangui against French troops, a demonstration that swelled after three ex- Séléka fighters were reported killed in clashes with French soldiers.