A major French military intervention in the Central African Republic (CAR) is expected within days as UN Security Council authorised increased military action to try and end the near-anarchy in the country.
The UN move came as the country's capital, Bangui, witnessed its heaviest clashes for months between mainly Muslim rebels and militias from the Christian majority. Witnesses said over 100 people died in the clashes.
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, told BFM-TV that around 1,200 French soldiers would be deployed in the operation. About 600 French troops are already in the former colony, which has been controlled by a coalition of rebel groups since a coup in March.
The fighters, known as the Seleka, are accused of numerous atrocities and recruiting child soldiers, and Fabius has warned that the nation is verging on genocide. "We have to end this humanitarian catastrophe and restore security," he said.
France has called for the UN security council to authorise the deployment of an African Union-led force to the CAR for a year to protect civilians and restore security and public order. The AU force is replacing a regional peacekeeping mission whose presence has been mainly limited to Bangui and a few northern cities.
The UN resolution would also authorise French forces, for a temporary period, "to take all necessary measures" to support the AU-led force, whose troop numbers are expected to rise from about 2,500 to 3,500.
Crackles of gunfire erupted at around 6am in Bangui yesterday and could still be heard sporadically nearly three hours later close to the city's international airport.