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US to complete Burundi airlift to C. Africa this week

Burundian soldiers leave the airport in Bangui after arriving on December 15, 2013 to join the African Union (AU) and French efforts to restore security in the troubled nation
Burundian soldiers leave the airport in Bangui after arriving on December 15, 2013 to join the African Union (AU) and French efforts to restore security in the troubled nation

A US operation to airlift some 850 Burundians into the Central African Republic to help restore security to the strife-torn nation should be completed this week, a top US official said Tuesday.

Washington also welcomed Belgian plans to send up to 150 troops to join a French and African Union (AU) force, and revealed that it had a few American troops on the ground in Bangui to help with the airlift.

Central Africa spiralled into chaos after a March coup in which the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel group overthrew President Francois Bozize.

France deployed its troops to the impoverished and notoriously unstable country on December 5 under a UN mandate to support the African peacekeeping force that had been struggling to quell the violence.

In a further sign of US support for the international efforts, State Department Assistant Secretary Linda Thomas-Greenfield told US lawmakers she was planning to visit the country soon with US envoy to the United Nations, Samantha Power.

"We're deeply concerned by the horrific violence across Central African Republic, particularly the increasingly sectarian nature of the attacks on civilians," Thomas-Greenfield told the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

"We're working closely with the members of the international community to end the violence and restore security to CAR," she added, saying the US had publicly condemned the former Seleka's rebels "seizure of power and its campaign of rape, pillage and killings."

The United States has pledged some $100 million in funding to help the AU-led force known as MISCA, and to fund military assistance by the Pentagon.

"We have already begun utilizing some of this funding to airlift 850 Burundian troops into CAR in an operation that is scheduled to be completed this week," Thomas-Greenfield said.

The AU force in CAR is due to be 6,000 strong at full strength, working alongside some 1,600 French troops.

Burundian troops are expected to be deployed to eastern CAR, a lawless area where marauding Ugandan-led Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels operate.

A Belgian military source told AFP on condition of anonymity that the government was considering the dispatch of some 150 troops for "a protection mission", possibly to secure airports.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the United States would welcome any such move.

She acknowledged too: "We do have a small liaison team of US military personnel in Bangui. Their primary responsibility is to help plan and coordinate US Air Force missions transporting African forces into Bangui."

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