2 French troops killed in Central African Republic

French President Francois Hollande says he will visit the country amid mounting violence

Central African Republic residents watch as French soldiers patrol a neighborhood in Bangui, the capital, on Dec. 10, 2013.
Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

As violence increases in the Central African Republic (CAR), President Francois Hollande of France announced that he will visit the troubled former French colony after leaving South Africa, where he attended the memorial for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday.

His decision came as the French government said two of its soldiers were killed while carrying out operations in the CAR capital of Bangui Tuesday, a day after Chuck Hagel, the U.S. defense secretary, ordered the U.S. military to transport African troops from Burundi into the CAR to help quell the latest upsurge in violence there.

Currently, there are 1,600 French troops in the CAR, where more than 400 people died in two days of violence last week during clashes between Christian and Muslim groups.

The fighting in the former French colony is between the mainly Muslim Seleka coalition originally from neighboring Chad and Sudan — and the Christian Anti-Balaka whose name means "anti-machete," the weapon of choice for members of Seleka.

Much of the wide-scale violence of the last week has eased but Reuters reporters in Bangui saw a mosque set on fire, houses looted and cars torched on Tuesday. Residents reported lynchings.

Most of the French soldiers are in Bangui, but soldiers have also been deployed to other towns across the country, where a regional African peacekeeping force has struggled to enforce its authority.  

Tens of thousands of Christians have fled reprisals by Seleka gunmen following the offensive but the French move to disarm all fighters has subsequently weakened Seleka's influence in the capital.

In the Fouh neighborhood, civilians armed with wooden clubs and machetes attacked a mosque and nearby houses.

At least six people were lynched overnight, mainly during violence targeting Muslims, according to residents in Benz-vi and Miskine, Bangui neighbourhoods.

The French presence on Bangui's streets was lighter than on Monday, when disarmament operations were underway.

The CAR has had little stability in five decades and since it gained independence in 1960, France has intervened in the CAR more times than in any of its former colonies.

The nation also lies at a crossroads of conflict in the heart of Africa, with Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia to the east, the Islamist threat in the Sahel region to the north and the revolts of the Great Lakes to the southeast.

US support

Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog said Hagel directed the U.S. Africa Command to begin transporting forces in coordination with France because the U.S. believes immediate action is needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the CAR.

He said the Pentagon will be evaluating what other U.S. resources might be available if additional requests for assistance come in.

Hagel's order on Monday came hours before President Obama recorded an audio message urging calm in the CAR.

Obama taped the message on Monday in Dakar, Senegal as Air Force One was refuelling on its way to South Africa for the memorial service honoring Nelson Mandela.

Addressing his remarks to "the proud citizens of the Central African Republic," Obama said people there have the power "to choose a different path" than violence. Those who commit crimes should be arrested, Obama said, adding that the U.S. will support the efforts of African countries and the French to restore security and protect civilians.

The transport flights are expected to begin in a day or two, according to a senior defense official who was not authorized to speak by name about the planning.

The official said there would be no other U.S. troops on the ground except any air crew needed for the flights into the CAR.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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