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President Samba Panza urges France 'not to abandon' C.Africa

The new president of the restive Central African Republic, Catherine Samba Panza, delivers a speech on February 12, 2014
The new president of Central African Republic, Catherine Samba Panza, delivers a speech in Mbaiki on February 12, 2014

Central African Republic President Catherine Samba Panza urged France on Friday "not to abandon" her country, as Paris prepares to vote on extending its military presence in the country.

"This is not the moment to abandon the Central African Republic," the interim president told AFP in an interview.

"I hope that the decision that will be made very soon by the (French) National Assembly will meet the expectations of the public which continues to rely on the international community, most notably the French," she added.

The vote, required by the French constitution, will take place on Tuesday. The French mission's mandate is due to expire in April.

France deployed 1,600 men on December 5 in support of a 6,000-strong MISCA force, and earlier this week Paris announced it would send 400 more.

The European Union is to start deploying a 1,000-strong peacekeeping mission next month.

In addition, UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon called on Thursday for the Security Council to deploy "at least 3,000 soldiers and additional police" to restore order and protect civilians.

French army general Francesco Soriano (Front L), commander of the French-led 'Operation Sangaris' in Central Africa, visits French troops who retook control of the entry to the town of Sibut, north of Bangui, on February 1, 2014
French army general Francesco Soriano (Front L), commander of the French-led 'Operation Sangaris' in Central Africa, visits French troops who retook control of the entry to the town of Sibut, north of Bangui, on February 1, 2014

He said this would be a temporary measure ahead of an official UN peacekeeping mission, which would take several months to approve.

The French parliament first debated the military intervention in December, where it found widespread support from the main political parties, although some on the left expressed their discomfort.

Following a surge in violence in the country, doubts are increasing in Paris about extending the mission.

- 'Risk of partition' -

From her vast office in the presidential palace in the capital Bangui, Panza renewed her request for a peacekeeping operation.

"The duration of this operation will depend on the evolution of the security situation on the ground," she said, but added that she thought it necessary for international forces to remain until elections due by March 2015.

Panza, who studied law in Paris before setting up an insurance and brokerage firm in CAR, said that the "risk of partition must not be ignored", now that Seleka rebels have retreated to the northeast of the country, and tens of thousands of Muslims have fled across the country.

The Central African Republic has been torn by bloody sectarian clashes since the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted president Francois Bozize in March 2013 and replaced him with their leader Michel Djotodia, who was himself forced out last month.

Violence has continued unabated since then, as mostly Christian anti-balaka vigilantes have taken their revenge.

Subduing the anti-balaka, who emerged last year to wreak havoc on the strife-torn country's Muslim minority, is one of the priorities for African and French troops.

A boy stands on an airplane in the Christian Mpoko refugee camp on February 20, 2014 during sunset, in Bangui, Central African Republic
A boy stands on an airplane in the Christian Mpoko refugee camp on February 20, 2014 during sunset, in Bangui, Central African Republic

"When we see the retreat of certain elements of the Seleka towards the northeast, we should intervene," said Panza, who is a Christian born of a Central African mother and Cameroonian father.

"It is our job now to approach these people and reassure them that they are in a Central African Republic that is one and indivisible, and secular."

Asked how she felt her month-old government had fared so far, she said: "There is a government in place, institutions are beginning to function, even if it is true that the state is not present throughout the interior of the country."

She admitted that "much remains to be done" to bring security to CAR, with explosions and gun battles continuing to rock the capital in recent days.

But she says her government has prevented a full breakdown in law and order, even if "the troops we have on hand are not enough to ensure the safety of all the people".

The humanitarian situation remains "serious and dramatic" despite the efforts of foreign NGOs, she added.

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