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France pledges more troops to Central Africa

Young people patrol with rifles near a house destroyed by fire on October 11, 2013 in Bogangolo
Young people patrol with rifles near a house destroyed by fire on October 11, 2013 in Bogangolo

France's foreign minister pledged more troops during a visit to the Central African Republic on Sunday but also warned the coup leader there to stick to his own promise of free polls in early 2015.

Laurent Fabius travelled to Bangui with Europe's top aid official to boost his campaign for increased international involvement in efforts to end the chaos that has engulfed the country this year.

"We currently have 410 men. As UN resolutions are passed, we will lend a hand with logistics in particular and boost" the French troop presence, he said after meeting Central African President Michel Djotodia.

"This will most likely be achieved by the end of the year," Fabius said.

Diplomats have told AFP that the former colonial power could boost its contingent to up to 1,200 troops, in support of a small pan-African peacekeeping force deployed in the country.

French FM Laurent Fabius (L), European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva (C) and Central African Republic's FM Leonie Banga Bothy Mbazoa (R) on October 13, 2013 in Bangui
French FM Laurent Fabius (L), European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva (C) and Central African Republic's FM Leonie Banga Bothy Mbazoa (R) on October 13, 2013 in Bangui

Western powers have reluctantly recognised Djotodia, the leader of the now disbanded Seleka rebel group that toppled Francois Bozize in March, as the country's first Muslim president.

In exchange, Djotodia has formed an inclusive government and pledged not to run in elections due to mark the end of an 18-month interim period in early 2015.

"There has been a demand that the authorities organise free polls at the beginning of 2015 and not contest them," he said.

France has voiced concern that the Central African Republic (CAR), which sits on vast mineral wealth but remains one of the world's poorest countries, risked becoming another Somali-style "failed state."

"We -- France, the European Union and the United Nations -- have decided to take up the challenge. We will not let you down, we will tackle this situation seriously," Fabius said.

The impoverished landlocked country is a little larger than France but sparsely populated and Djotodia is facing the same difficulty as his predecessors in extending his authority beyond the capital.

A French soldier of the BOALI operation in the Central African Republic looks through his scope at a checkpoint near Bangui Airport on October 10, 2013
A French soldier of the BOALI operation in the Central African Republic looks through his scope at a checkpoint near Bangui Airport on October 10, 2013

Chaos followed Bozize's ouster and reports of widespread summary executions, looting and abuses against civilians spurred the international community into action.

Former Seleka commanders gone rogue have established mini-fiefdoms scattered across the country in which they sew terror.

In some areas, villagers have responded by forming vigilantes, some of which have specifically targeted Muslims. Government forces now face the daunting task of bringing all these groups under control.

"The situation in one word: desperate. What is unique is that the entire population is impacted by the conflict," Europe's humanitarian aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said in Bangui.

"We need to do humanitarian (work) but also restoring the state, because if the state is gone, warlords are going to take over," said Georgieva.

The visit comes just days after the UN Security Council called for a possible UN peacekeeping force for the country to shore up the 1,400-strong African Union mission (MISCA).

French soldier of the BOALI operation in Central African Republic stand guard at a checkpoint near Bangui Airport on October 10, 2013
French soldier of the BOALI operation in Central African Republic stand guard at a checkpoint near Bangui Airport on October 10, 2013

The UN resolution drafted by former colonial power France and approved by the Security Council on Thursday voiced deep concern at the "total breakdown of law and order."

Some 1.6 million people nationwide -- one third of the population -- need humanitarian aid and nearly 300,000 are internally displaced or have fled to neighbouring countries, according to UN figures.

"There's an explosive cocktail in Central Africa, and we fear it could become a call to arms for all militant groups in the region," a French diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

He was referring to the presence of Chadian and Sudanese fighters and members of the Ugandan rebel Lord's Resistance Army, as well as the possible arrival of Islamist militants chased from Mali or Nigeria.

The Central African Republic, in the heart of equatorial Africa, has borders with six countries, including chronically unstable states such as South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Fabius was welcomed at Bangui airport with singers and musicians waving French flags and a banner appealing to the French president: "Hollande, we want peace."

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