CAR president asks France to stay till polls

2014-02-18 07:44
Central Africa's interim president Catherine Samba Panza. (Issouf Sanogo, AFP)

Central Africa's interim president Catherine Samba Panza. (Issouf Sanogo, AFP)

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Bangui - The leader of the strife-torn Central African Republic asked French troops on Monday to stay until polls due in early 2015, as unabated sectarian violence wrecked Paris's hope of a quick exit.

Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza's appeal to the former colonial power came three days after France's decision to boost its contingent to 2 000 and on the eve of a review of the CAR's deadly sectarian conflict by the UN Security Council.

"The interim president told us that they should stay until the elections, that is to stay until early 2015," French MP Elisabeth Guigou said in the capital Bangui.

When France launched operation Sangaris in December to prevent mass sectarian killing, President Francois Hollande envisioned a short deployment.

On Saturday however, with a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslims in full swing, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted that the French operation could last "longer than planned".

The French parliament is due to vote on 25 February on whether the 2 000 troops deployed in Central Africa can stay longer than their initial mandate, which expires in April.

The right-wing opposition has asked for clarity on the operation's goals but stopped short of calling for an early withdrawal.

"France cannot handle everything on its own," Guigou, a Hollande ally who chairs the parliament's foreign affairs committee, said after her meeting with Samba Panza.

10 000 troops needed

The European Union has pledged around 900 troops and the African Union has close to 6 000 already on the ground but the continent's mediator in the crisis said more were needed.

"To achieve a nationwide footprint we need an international contingent of at least 10,000," Denis Sassou Nguesso, the president of the Republic of Congo, told French newspaper Le Figaro in an interview.

Major EU powers such as Britain and Germany have refused to commit soldiers, and diplomats say efforts are focusing on smaller countries.

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said Monday that Helsinki could contribute up to 110 troops to the EU mission and criticised the slow reaction from the bloc.

"It could be something between 20 and 110... There is no decision on this yet," Tuomioja told AFP after meeting in Paris with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius.

"I would hope that in the future, the EU would be able to come together in a bit more rapid manner."

Amnesty International said last week that the mostly Christian anti-balaka vigilantes were attempting to exterminate the country's Muslim minority.

"'Ethnic cleansing' of Muslims has been carried out in the western part of the Central African Republic, the most populous part of the country, since early January 2014," Amnesty International said in a report.

The anti-balaka - "anti-machete" in the local Sango language - militias were initially self-defence groups formed in response to abuses committed by rogue ex-rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka coalition that seized power in March 2013.

With the remnants of Seleka on the back foot since France deployed its forces two months ago, most of the ongoing violence is now blamed on the anti-balaka's attacks.

Samba Panza, a Christian who took over as interim president last month from ex-Seleka boss Michel Djotodia, has said she was "going to go to war against the anti-balaka".

French and African troops have been unable to prevent mass looting and stem the cycle of revenge attacks.

The International Federation for Human Rights said on Monday that several attacks by suspected Seleka gunmen had killed at least 22 people in the western town of Bang since 13February.

Atrocities, the fear of attacks and a lack of food have displaced a quarter of the country's population, while the United Nations and relief agencies estimate that at least two million people need humanitarian assistance.

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