French defence minister urges ceasefire in Central Africa
08 July 2014, 18:34
Bangui - France's defence minister warned on a visit to the Central African Republic today that the strife-wracked country has no future unless rival factions agree to a ceasefire.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, who arrived in the capital Bangui yesterday, had lengthy private talks in the evening with transitional President Catherine Samba Panza, who was named by parliament to head the deeply poor nation in February.
"There is no future for the Central African Republic if there is no ceasefire" among mainly Muslim ex-rebels and mostly Christian vigilantes, both accused of atrocities against civilians, Le Drian said in an interview broadcast Tuesday by state radio.
Le Drian said that in Bangui itself, the presence of French and African troops and European peacekeepers "has enabled security to become almost good. Almost good. I see this clearly during successive trips."
But he noted that the situation in the east of the former French colony "remains tense" and stressed the need to prevent "clashes between groups who look only for hatred and vengeance."
The latest unrest in the chronically unstable nation began in March 2013 when the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel coalition toppled the regime of president Francois Bozize and put Michel Djotodia, the country's first Muslim leader in power.
Djotodia stepped down last January under strong international pressure for his failure to rein in rogue ex-rebels, who relentlessly murdered, raped and looted civilians.
In response, largely Christian communities formed "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) vigilante forces who ruthlessly hunted down and killed or mutilated Muslims.
Shortly before Le Drian's visit, several people were killed in attacks by both sides in the centre and north of the country, according to security sources, who said 34 Muslims were wounded by a grenade hurled into a mosque.
"These groups must accept a peace process. They need first to accept the ceasefire that is indispensable to peaceful development in the country," Le Drian said.
Paris last December began to deploy troops of the 2,000-strong Operation Sangaris, operating alongside more than 6,000 soldiers in an international force raised by the African Union known as MISCA. In April, a European Union force began to arrive in Bangui.
The ethnic and religious bloodshed has claimed thousands of lives and displaced about a quarter of the population of some 4.5 million. Before he left for Bangui, Le Drian told AFP that "the settlement can only be political, yet politics has broken down."
He added that he intended to talk with Samba Panza about restoring "a security chain" of police, the judiciary and prisons, arguing that "we're dealing more with criminal groups than with soldiers".