More French troops deploy as clashes persist in Central African Republic

French troops widened their deployment beyond the capital city of Bangui

A member of the French military, arriving from Cameroon, takes his position in Bouar, Central African Republic, on Dec. 7, 2013.
Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

The Central African Republic's shaky interim authorities on Saturday ordered all forces except foreign peacekeepers and the presidential guard off the streets of Bangui, where gunfire has eased but attacks on civilians have continued.

A senior U.N. aid official said French and African peacekeepers must push into neighborhoods where "senseless" Muslim-Christian killings are rife, not just control the main roads of the capital.

Clashes resumed in Bossangoa, about 190 miles north of Bangui, a day after an African peacekeeper was killed there, a witness there told Reuters.

And a hospital in Bangui was attacked by armed gunmen late Friday night, according to Al Jazeera sources.

At least 10 people were killed when Seleka rebels arrived at Bangui's Amitie hospital, reportedly pulling injured victims from the hospital, and shooting them. The hospital has since been abandoned, Al Jazeera has been told.

The order for gunmen to return to barracks in Bangui, read on national radio, came as France said Saturday it would dispatch 1,600 troops to the country, where at least 300 people have died in two days of violence between rival Christian and Muslim militias

France also said Saturday that the African Union will increase its force in the country to 6,000 troops — up from 3,500.

French troops have begun widening their presence as they came under criticism for only patrolling main roads in the center of the capital on Friday. Residents and rights groups said that killings had taken place down alleys away from the major arteries.

"Peacekeepers are patrolling the main roads. This is helping keep the looting down. But the atrocities are inside the neighborhoods," said Amy Martin, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"If they can get into the neighborhoods, we might start seeing a reduction in these crimes. The level of atrocities and the lack of humanity, the senseless killing defies imagination," Martin said.

French soldiers started patrolling the main roads and towns outside the capital on Saturday, French army spokesman Gilles Jarron said.

"We have started to deploy outside of Bangui," Jarron said. "The French forces pre-positioned in Cameroon have crossed the border and have started reconnaissance missions in the east."

A country divided

The former French colony has been gripped by chaos since Seleka leader and interim President Michel Djotodia lost control of his loose coalition of local leaders.

The violence has increasingly pitted Seleka's mainly Muslim fighters against Christian militias. Christians make up half the population and Muslims 15 percent. 

Djotodia, leader of the Seleka ex-rebel alliance, has struggled to control his loose band of fighters, many from neighboring Chad and Sudan.

An attack on Bangui on Thursday by anti-Muslim forces, and gunmen loyal to ousted President Francois Bozize has ignited the worst violence in a year of crisis.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council authorized France to use deadly force to help African peacekeepers struggling to restore order.

The local Red Cross said that by Friday evening 281 bodies had been collected from the city's streets, but many more were expected to be brought in over the weekend.

About 10,000 Bangui residents have fled to the airport, where French forces are based, in search of safety.

African intervention force

Meanwhile, African leaders at a French-brokered summit have moved closer to the creation of a military force capable of intervening in crises like the one in the CAR.

France has offered to provide equipment, logistical support and coordination for the force, and will seek to persuade its European Union partners to help with financing.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's defence minister, said on Friday that the force could be operational by 2015 and that France would train 20,000 African troops a year for five years.

The force would serve as a rapid-reaction contingent that will help Africa police its own security.

The CAR mission is France's second military operation in Africa this year. In January, President Francois Hollande sent more than 4,000 troops to Mali, where Islamist groups had seized control of much of the north of the country and had threatened to advance on the capital, Bamako.

The operations have continued a long-established pattern of France intervening militarily in Africa, but Hollande's government insists its approach represents a break from the past, when Paris was often accused of propping up undemocratic regimes and cynically pursuing its own interests in the region.

French officials framed the Mali operation as vital to prevent the country from becoming a new Afghanistan-style stronghold for armed groups, which could destabilize a region where Europe has vital strategic energy interests, as well as potentially exporting terrorism.

The intervention in CAR has been presented as an essentially humanitarian operation designed to avoid thousands of needless deaths as tit-for-tat sectarian killings spiral out of control.

France's decision to act in both cases has won praise if little in the way of concrete support from its allies, most notably from the United States, which on Friday hailed the "strong leadership" shown by Hollande over CAR.

While African leaders are keen to address the continent's myriad security problems and reduce their dependence on the former colonial powers at times of crisis, France is also keen to scale back its costly commitment.

Paris currently has more than 5,000 troops stationed at bases across Africa and the cost of maintaining them stands at $540m million per year.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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