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Chaos in Central African Republic prompts French intervention

Civilians wait for further treatment at Bangui's hospital, Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 following a day-long gun battle between Seleka soldiers and Christian militias. Fighting came to the capital of Central African Republic on Thursday, leaving dozens of casualties and posing the biggest threat yet to the new government just as the U.N. Security Council authorized an intervention force to prevent a bloodbath between Christians and Muslims.

Jerome Delay/AP

Another crisis in Africa, another burst of rhetoric about African solutions, and then the swift arrival of another wave of French troops to settle the matter.

Hundreds of French soldiers are on their way to the Central African Republic to stabilize a country that had fallen into deadly chaos. It's the kind of embarrassing neo-colonial intervention that Africans hate to see, yet still seem obliged to accept.

Nearly a year after French troops rescued Mali from a potential Islamist takeover, another contingent of more than 600 French troops is expected to arrive in the CAR within hours. The United Nations Security Council voted to authorize the troops on Thursday, even as the latest eruption of fierce fighting killed more than 100 people in Bangui, capital of the devastated country.

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African leaders have promised for a decade that they will create an "African Standby Force" to allow their own emergency response to crises in the continent. This year, frustrated by the long delays in setting up the force, they announced new plans for a temporary coalition of African troops to provide quick responses. Neither plan has come close to fruition, and Africa today is still dependent on foreign troops.

French president Francois Hollande announced on Thursday evening that he would send the French troops "immediately" – within days, if not hours. They will bring the total French contingent in the country to about 1,200 soldiers.

Witnesses in the CAR have reported horrific scenes of mass killings and sectarian violence in recent months. In the latest clashes on Thursday, victims were brought to hospitals and morgues with wounds caused by gunshots, knives and machetes. Officials have been warning of the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe, or even a genocide.

An Associated Press journalist counted 48 bodies at a mosque in a northern neighbourhood late Thursday. Separately, Doctors Without Borders confirmed at least 50 people were dead at hospitals they are running.

The armed Christian fighters attacked the capital before dawn, in the most serious violence to hit Bangui since a March coup brought the Seleka rebel coalition to power. The former rebels are accused of committing scores of human rights abuses. The Christian militias who support the deposed president are implicated in massacres of Muslim communities.

In Bangui, people scurried indoors, some seeking sanctuary in a church. Inside a Bangui hospital, dozens of people with gunshot wounds lay on the floor or on wooden benches, waiting for hours to see a physician. Underscoring the chaos, even the president's and prime minister's homes were looted.

The country's prime minister welcomed the intervention while in Paris for a summit of dozens of African leaders hosted by Hollande. In his first reaction to the move, Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye told The Associated Press that he sees it "very positively" and that he had wanted a "firm reaction from France." He called for fast action "to put an end to this violence and these atrocities."

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Tiangaye confirmed his house had been looted, describing the attackers as a group of Seleka who arrived in three pickup trucks.

"It's true, my house was attacked and pillaged," he said, adding that his family was evacuated beforehand and were safe.

Hours after fighting broke out, Central African Republic's president, who was installed by Seleka earlier this year, said the clashes were over. By afternoon, the streets were empty of all but military vehicles and the four-wheel-drive trucks favoured by Seleka.

Babacar Gaye, the UN special representative for the Central African Republic, appealed for calm in a joint statement from the UN, European Union, African Union and France.

Seleka is an unlikely group of allies who united a year ago with the goal of forcing President Francois Bozize from the presidency after a decade in power. After thousands of rebels besieged Bangui in March, Bozize fled and the insurgents installed their leader Michel Djotodia as president.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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