Thousands of Christian residents of the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui sought refuge at the airport on Friday where French troops arrived on a mission to bring stability to a country that the Associated Press described as teetering “on the brink of total anarchy.”
On Thursday, Christian militias loyal to the deposed president François Bozizé attacked Bangui, battling Muslim rebels there who have taken over large swaths of the country. The violence was reported to be the worst the capital had seen throughout this year’s crisis.
Bozizé, who himself came to power in 2003 through a coup, fled to Cameroon in March when mostly Muslim rebels, loosely led by Michel Djotodia, a former deputy prime minister, attacked the capital. Djotodia managed to unite the various rebel groups in the Muslim north against the federal government but appears to wield little control over the mix of mix of bush fighters, child soldiers and foreign mercenaries he has recruited.
France has stationed some 650 troops at Bangui’s airport. About 250 of them were deployed in town on Thursday night after the United Nations Security Council had sanctioned a peacekeeping operation.
“I have decided to act immediately, in other words, this evening,” President François Hollande told reporters hours after the vote in New York. He said the number of French soldiers in the Central African Republic would be doubled within days. Forces had been prepositioned in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Gabon, all former French colonies, in anticipation of an armed intervention. Troops began patrolling the main roads while warplanes flew low over the capital on Friday morning.
The French operation in the Central African Republic follows one in Mali, another former colony, earlier this year when its forces pushed back an Islamist rebel offensive on the capital Bamako. Malian and French troops, who were later joined by soldiers from neighboring African countries, drove the rebels into the desert where their insurgency lingers.
France also briefly intervened in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011 when the Christian president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to acknowledge that he had lost an election to Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim.
French intervention in the Central African Republic, independent since 1960s, stretches back to 1979 when paratroopers deposed dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa and reinstated David Dacko as president. Dacko was thereafter seen as a puppet of the former colonial power, however, and deposed once again in 1981. In 1996, French troops intervened thrice to suppress civil unrest and army mutinies, enabling President Ange-Félix Patassé to carry out reprisals which foreshadowed his overthrow seven years later by Bozizé.
France now says it is keen to distance itself from Francophone Africa where it maintained ties with authoritarian regimes for decades. Hollande told a meeting of African leaders in Paris on Friday, “Africa must be the master of its own destiny and that means mastering its own security.”
Hollande’s government intends to train up to 20,000 African soldiers during the next five years to boost states’ own security capacity. His troops are nevertheless under pressure to act swiftly in the Central African Republic. Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, said they would focus on securing Bangui and the roads leading to Cameroon and Chad in days to come.
The Central African Republic is rich in diamonds, gold and uranium but its artificial borders, a legacy of French colonial rule, have ensured decades of instability as the minority Muslim population in the north feels discriminated against by the majority Christians while violence from neighboring countries has routinely spilled over.