French troops gear up for lawless Central African Republic

Troops are preparing to deploy in chaotic CAR, one of Africa's poorest countries, amid warnings of genocide and worsening Christian-Muslim tensions. 

Joe Penney/Reuters
Militia fighters known as anti-balaka pose for a photograph in Mbakate village, Central African Republic Nov. 25. The group say they are protecting their village from Séléka fighters. With the country slipping deeper into chaos, former colonial power France plans to boost its force there to around 1,000 troops to restore law and order until a much bigger African Union force fully deploys.

A breakdown of order in the Central African Republic risks escalating into genocide and yet it has been a blind spot of the international community for months. 

Now, the United Nations and France say they will seek to restore stability by sending troops and supplies into one of the world’s poorest countries. A French warship with 300 soldiers on board left Sunday bound for the region, part of a plan to triple the number of French troops on the ground.  

For years the government has been challenged by a hodgepodge of three rebel factions called Séléka that have independently been in revolt. The Séléka alliance was borne from the frustration in the majority Muslim north of being marginalized by a Christian-dominated government that failed to deliver on promises of development. 

Following a three-month advance from Séléka’s stronghold in the north to the capital of Bangui, rebel leader Michel Djotodia named himself president in April in what has been described as a coup.

The country, or CAR as it is often known, has since been in a state of lawlessness. 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.

To complicate matters, Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army have been hiding in forests straddling CAR, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The original conflict was not religious in nature, but fear and mistrust have proliferated as communities seek to protect themselves. The impunity of attacks by former rebels has triggered the emergence of Christian vigilante militias collectively known as “anti-balaka” (anti-machete).

Since the movement took over, ethnic and religious cleavages between the CAR’s Muslim minority and the Christian majority have amplified. Violent exchanges between the two sides have prompted the United Nations to warn that the current conflict is at risk of escalating into genocide.

Regional spillover from conflict

Aside from the humanitarian crisis, the conflict could spread to its neighbors. Cameroon has already seen violent cross-border clashes. The ousted CAR government also charges that mercenaries from Chad and the notorious Janjweed fighters from Darfur in neighboring Sudan fought alongside Séléka’s troops.

Some 460,000 civilians have fled to the thick bush for safety, but reports suggest that many are dying from malaria, disease and starvation when they get there. Most children have stopped going to school and are exposed to sexual violence and forcible recruitment as soldiers. Aid workers deliver assistance in an increasingly volatile environment hindering humanitarian response. “When we were distributing supplies, former rebels came and took everything from us,” one aid worker recently described.

UN General-Secretary Ban-Ki Moon warned Nov. 15 that the humanitarian crisis and pervasive violence in the Central African Republic risks spiraling out of control and up to 9,000 peacekeepers could be required to bring back stability. The United States has openly disagreed with the UN over the size of the proposed international mission, arguing that regional force should provide immediate security. A small regional peacekeeping force was deployed in 2012 but did little to stop this year's coup. 

The African Union plans to send in a 3,600-member peacekeeping mission known as MISCA, which will incorporate a regional force of 1,100 soldiers already there, though some observers say it does not have the muscle to protect civilians.

French warship en route

France plans to triple its force in CAR to 1,200. The French Warship BPC Dixmude left Toulon on Sunday with 300 soldiers, two helicopters, and vehicles en route to the seaport of Douala for a transit to Ngaoundere and then to Bangui, the capitol of CAR, a security source told the Monitor.

An advanced French base is being established in the capital with a medical unit and air support ahead of the deployment of forces inside the country on the main axis towards Chad and Cameroon, says the expert.

More boots on the ground is a start but it is likely that attention will be focused on securing larger towns, and on forcing armed groups to retreat to more remote areas.

In the meantime, Séléka fighters may be tempted to use the small window of opportunity before French forces arrive to pilfer any valuable assets in a final bid to reward themselves.

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