France sends in more troops to quell sectarian violence in Central African Republic

Residents venture out into the streets as French soldiers patrol in show of strength

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 7:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 7:31am

French troops patrolled the Central African Republic's tense capital yesterday, as reinforcements crossed into the country as part of a UN-mandated effort to quell a wave of deadly sectarian violence.

Around 200 French soldiers crossed the border from Cameroon to a triumphant welcome from thousands of Central Africans shouting "Thank you!" and "Save us!"

French President Francois Hollande said yesterday his country was raising its troop deployment in the country to 1,600 - 400 more than initially planned.

As the nightly curfew was lifted early yesterday, Bangui's residents began venturing out onto streets that had been deserted since an explosion of violence two days earlier.

At least 300 people were killed in Thursday's massacre and subsequent reprisals, the Red Cross said, many of them clubbed or hacked to death.

"It is reassuring to see the French," said Bangui petrol seller Adolphe. "We are awaiting the liberation of Central Africans."

French troops, some of them on foot, patrolled the capital in a visible show of strength. Earlier, a French armoured vehicle took a symbolic swing past the front of the presidential palace.

A fighter jet flew low over the city, where bodies still lay abandoned outside the parliament building.

Red Cross staff continue to pick up dead and mutilated bodies from the streets, but have been overwhelmed by the scale of the task.

However, the situation appeared to have improved since Friday. Residents said only sporadic gunfire was heard overnight Friday, in stark contrast to the intense violence of the two previous nights.

An order by President Michel Djotodia for all armed groups except international forces to return to their barracks went largely unheeded, although locals said there appeared to be fewer armed men on the streets.

Life in the city began to regain some normality yesterday, with traders reopening their stalls under colourful umbrellas and residents venturing out to check on relatives.

"Some activity has resumed. Women stallholders are on the streets making fritters and porridge," one Bangui resident said.

The latest violence appeared to vindicate recent warnings from France, the United States and others that the Central African Republic was on the brink of collapse with tensions soaring between its Christian and Muslim communities.

The impoverished country has descended into chaos since a motley coalition of mostly Muslim rebel fighters known as Seleka overthrew former president Francois Bozize in March.

They installed their own chief, Djotodia, as president - the first Muslim head of the majority Christian country. Djotodia formally disbanded the Seleka, but ex-rebels continued to wreak havoc.