The operation started hours after the United Nations Security Council approved a French-sponsored resolution allowing for the use of military force to subdue ethnic violence in the landlocked African nation, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Radio France Internationale, according to the Associated Press.
At least 50 people were killed Thursday in fighting in the capital city of Bangui between rebels now running the country –the majority of whom are Muslim - and opposition groups who are mainly Christian, according to The Wall Street Journal. This follows months of growing clashes and lawlessness after rebel groups toppled former president François Bozizé in April.
France, which already has about 600 troops on the ground, plans on doubling its forces to 1,200 troops by this weekend. The UN resolution also approved the use of forces from MISCA, an African multinational force.
“Today, France is called upon to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe,” French President François Hollande said in a television address Thursday.
France had been considering increasing the number of its troops in the Central African Republic since at least late November, when The Christian Science Monitor reported that France planned on tripling its forces in the nation.
Tension in the Central African Republic has been building for years, as the Monitor explained in November:
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 born 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.
While the conflict was not originally religious in nature, “Since the movement took over, ethnic and religious cleavages between the CAR’s Muslim minority and the Christian majority have amplified,” Monitor correspondent Gillian Parker reported. “... 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).”
France’s Central African Republic operation follows its January intervention in Mali, when it responded to the request of the Mali government to help drive out Al Qaeda linked militants who had taken over northern Mali.
The French public widely supported the intervention, and it was seen as President Hollande’s most successful decision in 18 months as president, but after two French journalists were killed last month, the French public is beginning to wonder how long France will stay involved, the Monitor’s Paris bureau chief reported last month. France still has about 2,800 troops in Mali.
France also has to grapple with how its colonial past affects its relationship with Africa today. The Associated Press notes:
France has long served as Africa’s policeman, sending troops in regularly — and often meddling behind the scenes — to keep the peace and secure its interests on a continent where it was once a major colonial power. In more recent years, as it comes to terms with that colonial past, France has tried to forge a different, more equal relationship, focusing on trade.
But it remains a dominant military force for Africa, training African troops and responding to calls from African leaders themselves to help quell conflicts.