International

French troops begin operations in Central African Republic

With African allies, they move into CAR pledging to disarm fighters after recent internecine violence

French soldiers arrest an alleged member of Seleka, who was denounced by residents of Combattant neighborhood near Bangui's airport, on December 9, 2013.
Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

French troops in Central African Republic manned checkpoints in the capital on Monday and searched for weapons in an operation to disarm rival fighters responsible for hundreds of killings since last week.

Shooting erupted near the Bangui airport after gunmen refused to hand over their weapons. France said it was prepared to use force if fighters rejected calls to disarm or return to barracks.

The plan to seize weaponry comes after the president of CAR, Michel Djotodia, told Al Jazeera that he was not in complete control of his country.

Djotodia said he could not stop armed groups responsible for a wave of killings. Conflict between rival Christian and Muslim factions has left hundreds dead in just a few days.

"It is too much to say I have no control. I control my men. The men I can't control are not my men," said Djotodia, who came to power after a predominantly Muslim group, now known as Seleka, overthrew President Francois Bozize earlier this year.

On Monday, U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the U.S. military to transport Burundian troops to CAR.

"Secretary Hagel has directed U.S. AFRICOM to begin transporting forces from Burundi to the Central African Republic, in coordination with France," Carl Woog, assistant press secretary for the DOD said in a release. 

Reporting from CAR, Al Jazeera’s Tristan Redman said that troops started arresting fighters they said were Seleka men who fired on them for three hours near the airport. Redman said authorities found weapons in the vehicle of the alleged Seleka members.

The Red Cross says 400 bodies were found after three days of fighting between Seleka and a predominantly Christian group named Anti-Balaka, which means "anti-machete," the weapon of choice for many Seleka fighters.

In addition to the allotment of 1,600 French troops in the country, thousands more from the African Union (AU) are on their way. The AU has about 2,500 troops in the CAR, but is increasing that number to 6,000.

On Saturday, CAR's interim authorities ordered all forces except foreign peacekeepers and the presidential guard off Bangui's streets  after a hospital in the capital was attacked by Seleka forces.

The armed men reportedly pulled injured victims from Amitie Hospital, and shot dead at least 10. The hospital has since been abandoned.

Al Jazeera has learned that the Anti-Balaka group contains elements of former President Francois Bozize's army, and is regrouping outside the capital, awaiting reinforcements.

Thousands displaced

The United Nations said it had counted some 72,000 people displaced by the violence currently staying in various sites around the capital, including at the airport, where French and African troops are based.

"There are still conflicts in some neighborhoods. There's still killing," said Amy Martin, head of the United Nation's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bangui. "For now, we don't have the sentiment that people are ready to go home.

As relative calm returned to Bangui after the recent violence, information from elsewhere in the country, cut off from the capital since last week, began to trickle in.

A humanitarian worker in the town of Bossangoa said 38 people had died in the violence.

In Bozoum, in the northwest, U.N. officials received reports that dozens of people had been killed, and there was also violence in the nearby town of Bocaranga.

Humanitarian agencies and rights groups said the latest figures only reflected bodies that had been officially counted, and that the final death toll was likely to be significantly higher.

"We've spoken to a lot of people who have just buried their relatives in the back yard because they couldn't get out or didn't see the point of calling the Red Cross," said Joanna Mariner, a crisis expert with Amnesty International in Bangui.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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