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France pins hope on July talks to end Central African violence

Source: Reuters - Tue, 8 Jul 2014 12:22 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* At least 24 killed in cathedral attack - Red Cross

* Central African interim president "isolated" - Le Drian

* France hoping to draw down troops by year-end (Adds death count, minister cancelling visit, detail, background)

PARIS/BANGUI, July 8 (Reuters) - France said on Tuesday is was pinning its hopes on regional peace talks to halt violence in Central African Republic, a day after officials said rebels and armed Muslim civilians killed at least 24 civilians in a cathedral compound.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking during a visit to the former French colony, said its interim president was politically "isolated" as foreign troops struggled to stop recurrent violence between Muslims and Christians.

"The situation remains extremely complex and very fragile," Le Drian told RMC radio while visiting French troops stationed there after 10 were wounded in recent clashes.

Central African Republic is one of the world's poorest countries despite its deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals. It borders some of the continent's most unstable nations, including South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.

The latest violence stems back to the takeover of the majority Christian country last year by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group. Christian militia sprung up in response, saying they were defending their communities against Seleka attacks.

The rebel stepped down earlier this year under intense international pressure and an interim government took over.

"I met the president (Catherine Samba-Panza) last night. She has a lot of determination and goodwill, but is a little isolated," said Le Drian.

He added there was a "ray" of hope after regional leaders agreed to bring the country's main players to the negotiating table at the end of July in the Congo Republic capital Brazzaville to try and agree a ceasefire.

"The French government is putting a lot of hope in this conference, which should help reach a more pacified solution," Le Drian said, adding that if the next few months went to plan, Paris would begin withdrawing troops by the end of the year.

The weak interim government has failed to stamp its authority on the country despite the presence of about 6,000 African Union peacekeepers and 2,000 French soldiers.

Paris had hoped for a relatively quick solution to the crisis after it intervened in December, but violence has worsened in the north.

"The task for our forces is very difficult. They are trying to stop clashes between communities who have real hatred and others that are criminal gangs," said Le Drian .

Fighters attacked St. Joseph's Cathedral compound in Bambari, 380 km (236 miles) northeast of the capital, where thousands of mostly Christians were taking refuge on Monday, said church officials.

"As of this morning, we have counted 24 dead and 32 injured," Felix Ndarata, a Red Cross official in Bambari, said. Most died on the spot while others succumbed to their injuries in hospital, he added.

A Seleka official said that the incident was retaliation for an earlier attack by Christian militia known as "anti-balaka".

Le Drian cancelled a Tuesday trip to the town after the attack, said his spokesman.

More than a year of violence has killed thousands, forced a million from their homes and sent most Muslims fleeing into northern zones closer to Chad and Sudan.

Seven French soldiers were wounded in Bambari on Thursday, and three others were wounded in a grenade attack in Bangui a day later.

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