Feb 18 10:00 AM

Can France and the African Union bring peace to the CAR?

African Union troops conducting a weapon search outside Bangui, Central African Republic, in January 2014.
Jerome Delay/AP

Families are fleeing the Central African Republic by the tens of thousands as fighting between rival rebel groups — the Seleka and anti-Balakas — intensifies.

"There is nothing, nothing for us here. We are only suffering — us, our wives, our children," said one man fleeing for neighboring Chad.

In a country that has seen five coups and several military rebellions since its independence in 1960, this particular humanitarian crisis is raising alarms in the international community.

"Central Africa is a humanitarian catastrophe. There is an ethnic-religious cleansing taking place. It must be stopped," said Antonio Guterres, chief of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The poor landlocked country has been descending into chaos for close to a year now.

The Seleka coalition — a group of five rebel groups from the country’s Muslim-dominated north — overthrew the central government last March. A systematic campaign of rape, looting and murder by Seleka soldiers soon followed.

In December, after months of spiraling sectarian strife, the region’s former colonial power, France, initially sent 1,600 soldiers to try to bring order to the streets, alongside 5,500 African Union troops.

The European-African alliance eventually pressured Seleka leader Michel Djotodia to step down from the government last month. Catherine Samba Panza is the interim president.

But now the anti-Balakas and the country’s Christian population are swearing revenge against the Seleka and Muslim communities, forcing thousands to leave.

"Our greatest fear is that in a few weeks, there will be no Muslims in Bangui or in the west of the country," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.

Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

CAR humanitarian crisis

“Our greatest fear is that in a few weeks, there will be no Muslims in Bangui or in the west of the country.”

— Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director, Human Rights Watch

The groups' mutual hatred is spurring mass looting and anarchy across the country.

Arstide Penguili lost his leg to the violence.

"I was inside my house, and someone knocked at the door," he said. "When I opened the door, I was suddenly shot at. They shot me in the leg. I was taken to a community hospital, where I spent two months."

Last week France deployed an additional 400 troops from Chad and Gabon.

"We are here to apply the U.N. Security Council resolution, meaning the resolution of the international community, voted on in unanimity, including the use of force," said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain.

This weekend, French and African Union peacekeepers conducted house searches in a Bangui neighborhood believed to be the anti-Balaka base.

Knives, grenades, automatic weapons and ammunition were confiscated, but the mission's top target, Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, escaped capture.

I was inside my house, and someone knocked at the door. When I opened the door, I was suddenly shot. They shot me in the leg.

Arstide Penguili

Though the Central African Republic is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium, decades of political chaos and resource mismanagement have left its residents largely impoverished and vulnerable.

The U.N. estimates that over 1 million people are in need of emergency food aid. Close to 90 percent of the population is living on just one meal a day.

Armed militias are blocking off roads, making it dangerous to drive in food. The World Food Program started delivering aid by plane last week.

With planting season only one month away and farmers still needing their seeds, the country's humanitarian crisis may worsen.

The U.N. says more than 2,000 people have been killed by the fighting and more than 800,000 have been displaced.

Can French and African Union troops help the Central African Republic out of its sociopolitical chaos?

What's the context of the current crisis?

Will enough food aid get into the country before the upcoming rainy season?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

This panel was assembled for the broadcast of “Inside Story.” 

For future hard-hitting conversations, find Al Jazeera America on your TV.

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