France in demand again as Central Africa crisis deepens

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A French soldiers carry their weapons at the Mali air force base near Bamako January 19, 2013. REUTERS/Eric …

By John Irish

BANGUI (Reuters) - France, whose troops this year halted an Islamist assault towards Mali's capital, is now in demand from another of its former African colonies.

"Let's make up with the mother that feeds us! President Hollande we want your help!" read one banner as cheering locals welcomed France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, to Central African Republic at the weekend.

Plunged into chaos since mostly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize in the mostly Christian country in March, the nation is facing sectarian violence, malnutrition and a near total collapse of state rule.

Fearing their plight has been eclipsed internationally by conflicts in Syria and Mali, some see France as their best hope.

"We've seen coups before, but nothing like this," said local Bangui journalist Steve Niko. "In Mali the population suffered in one area, but here we're suffering everywhere. It's like our crisis has been forgotten."

The landlocked nation is rich with minerals ranging from uranium to diamonds. But decades of instability and official corruption have meant those potential riches have been little exploited and have far less been of help to the population.

As violence including murder and rape drives more than 440,000 people from their homes, there are just seven surgeons in a country of 4.6 million people to deal with bullet and machete injuries and one in 10 children die at birth.

"The Seleka rebels came with weapons, hurt us, burnt our houses and then there were reprisals from Christian militias," said a woman called Dore at one hospital in Bangui, recounting how she fled hundreds of kilometres on foot with three children all under the age of six.

Long seen by many in Central African Republic as meddling in its affairs after independence in 1960, France has intervened in the past, for example when it supported Bozize in 2006 against an earlier incarnation of northern rebels.

But official French policy now is for a more "hands-off" stance in such conflicts. Paris is all the more reluctant to be left to deal with another African hotspot after it felt allies such as the United States were hesitant to help it in Mali.

Nonetheless, its current 400-strong contingent secure the airport and patrol districts where French interests lie, a move that in itself has worked to deter potential looters.

"STATE UNSEATED"

Fabius has announced a troop increase by year-end once the U.N. Security Council votes in December on a resolution to strengthen a U.N. mission. Sources said it could increase the total French force to between 700-1,200.

"It wouldn't be an intervention in the classical sense of the word," Fabius said. "We're not going to send parachutists, but there needs to be a presence because the state has been completely unseated."

An African Union force soon to number 2,600 and composed of forces from neighbouring states including Chad, Gabon, Congo Republic and Cameroon has deployed as part of the 3,600-strong U.N. mission known by the acronym MISCA.

But beyond the capital and the main commercial corridor to Cameroon, the force has not had the military means or financial muscle to venture further afield.

In addition, local officials and people resent its largest contingent, Chad, which many accuse of having interfered in its affairs and of being too lenient with ex-rebels.

"If we lead an operation and the Chadians are involved it's a fiasco. We need a clear MISCA mandate with France," said a French-trained Central African Republic military official, who declined to be identified.

As with the hospitals, resources are a problem. The official said just five vehicles were available to 2,500 gendarmes, a role based on the French model mixing police and army functions.

"We don't know what's happening just a few kilometres from Bangui and in the northeast it's even more dangerous. It's a no go area. We have the will, but not the means," the official said.

While order has largely returned to the capital, fed by a picturesque river and surrounded by rolling hills, rule of law is largely absent barely 200 km (130 miles) outside.

"Everybody is armed here," said a police officer in a ragtag uniform standing by the side of a dusty road. "I don't go out after dark, because everyone has weapons whether guns or knives, and we have neither cars, uniforms or food."

Bozize is thought to be somewhere in east Africa, looking for support to regain power, French diplomatic sources say.

For now the country is ruled by former rebel leader Michel Djotodia - the first Muslim to run the country - who has vowed to stand down once elections are held at the start of 2015.

"Be it Bozize before or Djotodia now, the same problems exist," presidential spokesman Guy Kodégué said.

"It is a problem of misery and poverty. It doesn't cost a lot compared to what France spent to hunt down Islamists in a small part of Mali. With similar help, we would be okay for 40 years."

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