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Loss of French soldiers in Central African Republic highlights tough quest for peace (+video)

Two soldiers were killed today, underscoring the challenges French forces face in the increasingly unstable former French colony.

By Staff writer / December 10, 2013

Chadian troops within the FOMAC forces reload their weapons as they leave the area next to the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic today. Two French soldiers were killed in combat in Central African Republic's capital, the first French casualties since French President Francois Holland ordered a stepped-up military presence in the restive former colony to help quell inter-religious violence.

Jerome Delay/AP

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Latin America Editor

Whitney Eulich is the Monitor's Latin America editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She also curates the Latin America Monitor Blog.

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Two French soldiers were killed in overnight fighting in the Central African Republic, France's first casualties in an operation to restore stability in its former colony. Much of the wide-scale violence that has killed hundreds in the last week has eased but Reuters reporters in Bangui saw a mosque set on fire, houses looted and cars torched on Tuesday. Residents reported several lynchings overnight too. The country has descended into chaos since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in March. Months of looting, raping and killing since has brought reprisals by Christian militias. Michel Djotodia, Seleka leader-turned interim president, has lost control of his loose band of fighters, which includes many from Sudan and Chad.

Two French soldiers were killed in the Central African Republic (CAR) today. Their deaths come less than a week after French troops mobilized there under the UN Security Council, highlighting the difficulty the troops face in a volatile country that some say is on the brink of a genocide.

The office of French President François Hollande issued a statement saying the paratroopers were killed overnight while patrolling near the airport in the capital, Bangui.

“The president expresses his profound respect for the sacrifice of these two soldiers and renews his full confidence in the French forces committed – alongside African forces – to restoring security in the Central African Republic, to protecting the people and guaranteeing access to humanitarian aid,” the statement said. 

Mr. Hollande is scheduled to visit the CAR, where an estimated 1,600 French troops have been deployed, on his way back from Nelson Mandela’s memorial in South Africa today.

Nearly 400 people were reported killed in and around Bangui before the French forces were deployed, according to Agence France-Presse. French troops have orders to disarm rebels and militias, and described the situation in Bangui as relatively calm on Monday night, shortly before the exchange of fire that led to the soldiers’ deaths.

The landlocked former French colony has become increasingly unstable since March, when the rebel group Seleka, a majority-Muslim group, ousted President François Bozizé. Former Seleka leader Michel Djotodia took over as president and then called for the disbanding of the rebel group. Since then, violence has spiked, according to The Christian Science Monitor:

Armed militia groups trawl through villages and towns pillaging, killing, and burning homes to the ground.

Although President Djotodia disbanded Séléka and incorporated its warlords into the country’s Army, former rebels have continued to wreak havoc and launch brutal attacks.

Christian militias, known as anti-balaka, or anti-machete, groups have formed in response, carrying out violence against CAR’s Muslim population.

" 'The resulting tit-for-tat spiral of violence [between Muslims and Christians] is creating the foundation of a religious conflict that will be very difficult to stop,' Lawrence D. Wohlers, the recently departed US ambassador to CAR, told Foreign Policy.

"Although it is the Christian population that has suffered the most until now, the Muslim population is a distinct minority and may suffer far more as Seleka's power declines.”

The sectarian violence has worried many regional watchers who fear they may be witnessing the sowing of “seeds of genocide,” reminiscent of the brutal conflict in Rwanda in 1990s, reports The New York Times:

Clearly, United Nations officials have been haunted by the sectarian tenor of the conflict. In a briefing to the Council, the deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, called it “a vicious cycle that could very easily turn into mass atrocities.”

Let no one say later that the world was not warned, he went on to tell reporters. “It is not as much a problem of early warning — we have had this warning for a long time,” Mr. Eliasson said. “The question now is timely response.”

The United States has agreed to “limited” military assistance, according to the BBC, largely in the form of flying in troops stationed in other African countries.

The African Union has pledged to send 3,500 troops, but their deployment has been delayed due to need for transport.

The Financial Times reports that the early French causalities underscore “the difficulty facing French forces.” To put this in perspective, only seven French soldiers have been killed to date in Mali, where French troops deployed last year to stop an Islamist insurrection from overtaking the country.

France is concerned that a power vacuum in the CAR could attract organised Islamist groups to set up in the country and destabilise neighbouring states, prompting Mr Hollande to launch his second military intervention in Africa within a year. The CAR operation is on a smaller scale than the intervention in Mali in January to oust Islamist groups threatening to take over the country, also a former French colony.

The deaths could potentially complicate things for France, which has said its troops are not on the front lines. “[T]hese deaths suggest French troops are going beyond a support mission and are involved in direct combats. This could complicate Paris's objective of repatriating its troops before the summer, and hand over the peace keeping mission to a full-fledged U.N. force,” reports The Wall Street Journal.

According to UNICEF, upwards of 48,000 people have been displaced from CAR since the coup in March. That number is made up largely of women and children.

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