CAR presses for UN peacekeeping mission amid 'cleansing'

UN reports most Muslims have been expelled from the west of conflict-ravaged Central African Republic

Thousands of civilians are at risk of being killed "right before our eyes," U.N. high commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said Thursday.
Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

The foreign minister of the Central African Republic told the Security Council Thursday that a U.N. peacekeeping mission is urgently needed in his country to bolster French and African troops struggling to contain sectarian killing between Muslims and Christians. At the same time, a top U.N. official said there has been a "cleansing" of the Muslim population in the western region of Central African Republic.

The Security Council met to consider a recommendation from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that he made last month to establish a 12,000-member U.N. peacekeeping mission. French Ambassador Gerard Araud said he would circulate a resolution in the coming weeks and predicted consensus approval — but said there would be "tough" negotiations on ways to try to curb costs.

"We would roll out the red carpet for them tomorrow," said Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, Central African Republic's foreign minister. "There are no alternatives in terms of survival."

Central African Republic, long one of the world's poorest and most unstable countries, plunged deeper into chaos nearly a year ago when Muslim fighters from the north invaded the capital and overthrew the president who had been in office for a decade. The rebels pillaged neighborhoods, raping and killing people for months, giving rise to the Christian militia.

In early December, the Christian militia attempted to overthrow the Muslim rebel government then in power. More than 1,000 were killed during several days of fighting as violence between the two communities exploded.

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said the United States supports Ban's proposal and is "prepared to work closely with partners starting immediately to move forward in developing a peacekeeping operation that can meet the challenges in the Central African Republic."

The U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said it would take about six months to organize and deploy the U.N. peacekeeping force, and much of it would include the current intervention force of nearly 6,000 African Union troops by "re-hatting" them. There are also about 1,600 French soldiers in Central African Republic who would not be part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation. Last month, France announced it would bolster its presence there by 400 troops amid chronic bloodshed.

Philipe Bolopion, of Human Rights Watch, criticized the world body for taking too long to move forward on the mission.

"The Security Council has wasted too much time," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The U.N. is clear that despite the French and AU deployments, the human rights situation is still deteriorating."

"When civilians are in such danger, Security Council members should not allow financial considerations to get in the way," he added.

The African Union has been pressing to give the AU-French force more time to accomplish its mission.

The AU envoy to the United Nations, Tete Antonio, told the Security Council on Thursday that the African Union "welcomes the recommendation for the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping operation." But he called for a transfer date of Sept. 15, 2014 and urged continued support for the AU-French force until then.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said the crisis has driven more than 290,000 refugees into neighboring countries, and some 80,000 foreign nationals have fled the country.

"Since early December we have effectively witnessed a 'cleansing' of the majority of the Muslim population in western" Central African Republic, where thousands of civilians are at risk of being killed "right before our eyes," Guterres said.

Ladsous said that half the Muslims in the capital, Bangui, have fled.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said there is a "total breakdown of the state" in Central African Republic, "and the country depends on international aid."

The force now in place is struggling to control Bangui and guard some 70,000 civilians who have sought shelter at an emergency U.N. base at the airport.

In his report to the Security Council, Ban said the current force's numbers are insufficient and they lack civilian experts in nation-building.

The Central African Republic mission would become the U.N.'s third-largest peacekeeping force, after those in Congo and Sudan.

Araud, the French ambassador, said there would be difficult talks ahead about how to try to hold down the cost of the mission.

"For a lot of countries — and I understand it — the financial burden of a peacekeeping operation is becoming a real question," he said.

Ladsous said the cost of the mission "would be substantial," reaching the "hundreds of millions" of dollars.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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