EU to send troops to tackle 'epic crisis' in Central African Republic
Rare joint mission aims to bolster French and African forces in bid to end sectarian violence
The European Union has agreed to send hundreds of troops to the Central African Republic in a rare joint military mission aimed at ending months of sectarian violence.
Saying Europe was "deeply concerned by the extreme insecurity and instability" in the impoverished nation, EU foreign ministers gave "political approval" to the rapid deployment of a force expected to number between 400 and 600.
An EU-UN donors conference in Brussels, meanwhile, gathered US$496 million in pledges this year for the country, where almost one million people, or 20 per cent of the population, have been displaced by fighting.
As the European foreign ministers discussed what will be the EU's first major ground operation in six years, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned the country was in "a crisis of epic proportions" and urged the world "to pull CAR back from the brink of further atrocities".
"We face a political and humanitarian emergency in the Central African Republic," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. "We clearly need to do something."
The UN's World Food Programme said on Monday that it was running out of food for a growing number of homeless people, with the spreading unrest hobbling distribution efforts.
It said 38 trucks carrying rice were stuck at the Cameroon border, with the drivers refusing to cross due to the threat of attacks.
"Suspending food distributions could lead to further tension, particularly among the 100,000 displaced people in the overcrowded Bangui airport camp," the agency warned.
The military mission is to help establish a safe and secure environment around the capital, Bangui, where 1,000 people were killed last month alone in clashes between Christian and Muslim militias.
It will back up French and African forces and hand over to African or UN peacekeepers after a four- to six-month period.
Britain, like Germany, has offered logistical support to the French but has repeatedly made clear it would not send troops.
The EU "bridging force" is likely to be asked to protect Bangui's airport, to where about 120,000 people have fled in fear of the inter-communal violence.
Once a UN mandate has been obtained, which could come as early as tomorrow, EU planners hope to get troops on the ground by late February. Command would be handed to France, with headquarters in Greece.
"We cannot be more pleased," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. "Europe is going to come to the military support of the Central African Republic."
For French President Francois Hollande, under pressure at home, the decision will be welcome after he committed troops to France's former colony and then sought EU support.
"An EU deployment will offer Paris both some immediate operational benefits - freeing up French troops - and political relief," said Richard Gowan, of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "It would at least show that the EU has not deserted France completely in Africa."
Central African Republic: To hell and, hopefully, back
March 24: Rebels from the Muslim-dominated Seleka seize presidential palace in Bangui. Francois Bozize flees.
March 25: Seleka leader Michel Djotodia suspends constitution, says he will rule by decree until elections. The African Union suspends the CAR and slaps sanctions on Djotodia and six other officials.
May 31: The country issues international arrest warrant for Bozize.
August 18: Djotodia sworn in as president, vowing to "preserve the peace, to consolidate national unity and ensure the well-being of the people".
September 8-9: About 100 people are killed in two days in fighting between ex-Seleka rebels and Christians loyal to Bozize.
September 13: Djotodia says he is dissolving the Seleka.
November 19: US envoy to UN visits CAR and warns its people are "in profound danger".
December 5: France orders 600 more troops into the CAR, doubling its existing force just after UN Security Council issues a green light for the intervention.
December 7: French troop numbers increase to 1,600, with mission to disarm the groups blamed for a spiral of violence. African troops under the same UN mandate number about 4,000.
January 10: Djotodia resigns under intense pressure for failing to end the violence after unrest kills more than 1,000 people in the previous month alone.
January 13: Hundreds of soldiers who had joined the rebels return to their barracks. Interim president Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, whose parliament is charged with finding a new leader, declares "the party is over".
January 16: UN's humanitarian operations director warns of a potential for "genocide".
January 20: Transition parliament picks Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza as interim president. She urges Christian and Muslim militias to lay down their arms. The EU agrees to send hundreds of troops to help restore peace.