France ships 1 400 assault rifles to CAR army

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Central African Republic (iStock)
Central African Republic (iStock)

France on Tuesday handed over 1 400 AK-47 assault rifles and three amphibious vehicles to the Central African Republic to shore up its beleaguered armed forces.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly oversaw the handover at a ceremony at M'Polo military base in the capital Bangui.

The military aid was announced in Paris in November, along with $27.4 million in civilian assistance.

One of the world's poorest nations, the CAR has struggled to recover from a 2013 civil war that erupted when President Francois Bozize, a Christian, was overthrown by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels.

In response, Christians, who account for about 80% of the population, organised vigilante units dubbed "anti-Balaka" in reference to the balaka machetes used by Seleka rebels.

Thousands of people have died in the violence, 700 000 have been internally displaced and another 570 000 have fled abroad.

With the armed forces hampered by poor training and lack of equipment, the UN-backed central government controls only a fraction of the country's territory.

In 2013, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo and it remains in place today.

Exemptions are made for weapons shipments for the security forces that gain pre-approval from a UN sanctions committee.

The panel is tasked with ensuring that imported weapons do not end up in the hands of the militias in the corruption-prone country.

The panel gave the green light last year for Russia to supply 1 700 AK-47s to the national forces in January, and gave its approval again to the French shipments.

But in June, France, Britain, and the United States blocked a request from the CAR for approval of Chinese weapons deliveries.

"From France's point of view, there is in principle no obstacle to ending the embargo" permanently, Parly said on Tuesday.

She stressed: "What is important is that these weapons, after they are delivered to the Central African armed forces, can be identified, stored and traced."

The CAR has an army of just 7 000 men in a population of 4.5 million. They are facing militia groups estimated to be at least similar in numbers.

Russia has sent 170 military instructors - suspected by western sources to be mercenaries linked to Russian mining companies in the mineral-rich CAR.

France, the former colonial power, sent 2 000 troops to quell the Seleka rebels, winding down the operation in 2016 after President Faustin-Archange Touadera was elected.

It has around 200 troops in the CAR today, working in support of the armed forces and the UN peacekeeping mission here.

Parly said that France was the CAR's "major partner for development aid", providing $147 million annually.

The 1 400 guns handed over by France are a gift, French officials said.

They were seized aboard a dhow off Somalia in 2016 that was intercepted for breaching an arms embargo with Yemen, they said.

The European Union has a military training mission in the CAR that involves 170 people. In July, it pledged $28 million to extend the mission until September 2020.

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