CAR residents urge French to secure city
09 December 2013, 19:58
Bangui - Terrified Bangui residents anxiously waited for French troops to secure the city on Sunday before emerging from their homes after a wave of sectarian violence killed hundreds.
The French force received a triumphant welcome on Saturday as it deployed across other parts of the Central African Republic in a bid to stem the chaos that has gripped the country since a March coup.
The communal strife that has wracked the Central African bush for months flared in Bangui on Thursday, killing nearly 400 people.
"We have counted 394 dead in the last three days," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on France 3 television.
The French contingent, which army spokesman Colonel Gilles Jaron said had reached its new full strength of 1,600 by Sunday, has secured strategic locations in Bangui.
But traumatised residents were eager Sunday to see the troops move deeper into the neighbourhoods.
"We're waiting for the French to enter our districts and be sure we won't encounter any of those gunmen," one resident told AFP.
"We're all exhausted from living in fear. We want this to end," said another, declining to give his name.
Jaron said no further clashes had been reported since Thursday but added that tension was palpable as French forces prepared to hunt down marauding gangs of ex-rebels.
High-tech combat gear
"I think they understand that they will have to be gathered and disarmed and that the French force is subduing them, that creates tension," he said.
In comments on national radio, Central African Republic President Michel Djotodia thanked the former colonial power for its military help.
On Saturday, cheering residents honked horns, danced and banged on saucepans as some 200 French troops rolled into the western town of Bouar from neighbouring Cameroon.
"Thank you" and "Save us", yelled some of the thousands of people massed to see the convoy bristling with guns and French fighters in high-tech combat gear swoop into town.
French President Francois Hollande, describing the Bangui bloodshed as "terrifying", announced 400 extra soldiers on Saturday but said there would be no further reinforcements and insisted most troops would not stay more than six months.
The French presidency also announced that the African Union would boost the regional MISCA force also on the ground to 6 000 troops from a planned 3 600.
'Quick stop to atrocities'
Hollande said the job of the French and African troops would be "to disarm militias who are acting like gangsters, raping women and even killing people in hospitals."
"I believe we can quickly put a stop to the current atrocities and massacres."
MISCA, at its current strength of 2 500 and lacking equipment, has made little impact since a motley coalition of mostly Muslim fighters known as Seleka overthrew Francois Bozize nine months ago.
The Seleka chief Djotodia became interim president, the first Muslim leader of the mostly Christian country.
He disbanded Seleka but while some militiamen remained loyal to him, others went rogue and warlords soon imposed a reign of terror on large swathes of land.
Local Christians responded by forming vigilante groups and the government was never able to assert its authority over the sprawling, landlocked country.
Reports have described a series of horrors, with security forces and militia gangs razing villages, carrying out public killings and perpetrating widespread rapes.
On Saturday, overwhelmed Red Cross staff continued to pick up dead and mutilated bodies - mostly clubbed or hacked to death - from the streets of the capital.
A surge in communal violence has raised international fears of large-scale ethnic cleansing and even talk of a "pre-genocidal" situation.
At Bangui's Saint-Paul church, around 2 000 people who fled the violence and found refuge inside the parish compound, listened to Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga's sermon.
He condemned the "barbaric" killing in Bangui last week but voiced a "message of appeasement to the faithful."
The archbishop, whose church is often seen as the only authority in remote parts of the country beyond the state's reach, has been tirelessly criss-crossing the hinterland in recent months in a bid to defuse sectarian rhetoric.
Djotodia accused forces loyal to the exiled Bozize, who still has allies in the coalition government and has hinted he had not given up on his old job, of being behind the vigilantes.
The Bangui prosecutor on Saturday announced that a "war arsenal" had been found at the home of Interior Minister Josue Binoua, an ally of Bozize.
Hollande ordered the launch of operation "Sangaris" - named after a local butterfly - on Thursday after winning a UN Security Council mandate.