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France striving to stop C.African Republic split, Hollande says

Source: Reuters - Fri, 28 Feb 2014 19:04 GMT
Author: Reuters
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A family gathers at a camp for displaced people at M'poko International Airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Camille Lepage
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* Muslims flee to northeast, creating de facto division

* France has deployed 2,000 soldiers to former colony

* Hollande says bandits "terrorising" Muslim population (Adds U.N. official quote, Amnesty statement)

By Serge Leger Kokpakpa

BANGUI, Feb 28 (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande told the Central African Republic on Friday that French troops stationed there would work to stop the country splitting in two and disarm militias and bandits fighting local Muslims.

Arriving in Bangui from Nigeria, where he attended an event marking the centenary of its unification, Hollande met interim President Catherine Samba-Panza and addressed French troops.

France's parliament voted on Tuesday to extend the troops' mission, despite tepid popular support at home for a military operation in the former French colony where thousands of people have been killed and around a million forced from their homes.

France sent troops four months ago - its force now numbers 2,000 - to the majority Christian country where predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power last March and have since been pushed back by Christian "anti-balaka" militia.

Thousands of Muslims have fled northeast from the capital towards the border with Chad, creating a de facto division of the country which the U.N. human rights chief has said now faces "ethnic-religious cleansing".

"In the east and the north, we need to stop score-settling, establish the authority of government, allow it to engage in dialogue and avoid any temptation to partition the east of the Central African Republic," Hollande told French soldiers in a helicopter hangar at the airport in the capital Bangui.

He also said French troops would disarm militias and bandits that were "terrorising the Muslim population".

In addition to the French troops, 6,000 African Union peacekeepers (MISCA) are also currently deployed and up to 1,000 EU soldiers are still due to arrive in Central African Republic.

However, speaking in Geneva after two months in charge of civilian protection for the U.N. system in Bangui, Philippe Leclerc said there were still not enough troops on the ground.

Insufficient protection was forcing the United Nations to evacuate civilians, he said, contributing to the ethnic cleansing of the country.

"When the situation of the people who are escaping is so difficult, the U.N. has no other possibility than trying to evacuate them to safer places or ensure safe passage to places that they believe are safe," Leclerc said.

BEYOND BANGUI

Hollande said the situation in Bangui had "significantly improved" since French troops arrived, echoing the observations of some aid workers.

But the Red Cross said on Friday that more than 10 people had been killed in the capital this week, adding that some bodies had been mutilated, with their genitals stuffed into their mouths.

Samba-Panza has repeated called for the creation of a U.N. peacekeeping mission for her country. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expected to present a report next week assessing the possibility of transforming MISCA into a U.N. mission.

Netsanet Belay, Africa Director for Research and Advocacy for the rights group Amnesty International, called upon the Security Council to urgently authorise the mission.

"Current efforts to tackle the crisis are far from adequate and the new UN mission must have the capability to tackle this crisis," he said.

Meanwhile, the next phase of the French operation, named Sangaris after a local butterfly, will deploy roughly half of its troops beyond Bangui, according to a presidential source.

In addition to the northeast, that would include the road link to Cameroon, an key lifeline for food and other imports.

"Clearly this is more risky and we are more exposed," the source said. Three French soldiers have been killed since deployment began in December.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders, (MSF) said over 8,000 refugees had arrived in southern Chad since late January.

"The World Food Programme and Chadian authorities should intervene in all urgency to distribute food to these people who are completely destitute," said MSF's Sarah Chateau in Chad.

Amy Martin, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said there were clashes in Kaga-Bandoro, about 200 km (120 miles) north of Bangui, earlier this week.

"The anti-balaka have been following the Muslims and monitoring their positions and try to attack them as they move," she said. (Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Emma Farge and Joe Bavier; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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