Central Africa president asks France to stay till polls

Central African Republic's Interim President Catherine Samba Panza asked French troops on Monday, Feb 17, 2014, to stay until polls due in early 2015, as unabated sectarian violence wrecked Paris' hope of a quick exit. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP
Central African Republic's Interim President Catherine Samba Panza asked French troops on Monday, Feb 17, 2014, to stay until polls due in early 2015, as unabated sectarian violence wrecked Paris' hope of a quick exit. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AFP) - The leader of the strife-torn Central Africa Republic asked French troops on Monday, Feb 17, 2014, to stay until polls due in early 2015, as unabated sectarian violence wrecked Paris' hope of a quick exit.

Interim President Catherine Samba Panza's appeal to the former colonial power came three days after France's decision to boost its contingent to 2,000 and on the eve of a review of the deadly sectarian conflict by the UN Security Council.

"The Interim President told us that they should stay until the elections, that is to stay until early 2015," French MP Elizabeth Guigou said in Bangui.

When France launched operation Sangaris in December to prevent mass sectarian killing, French President Francois Hollande envisioned a short deployment.

On Saturday however, with a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslims in full swing, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted that the French operation could last "longer than planned".

The French Parliament is due to vote on Feb 25 on whether the 2,000 troops deployed in Central Africa can stay longer than their initial mandate, which expires in April.

The right-wing opposition has asked for clarity on the operation's goals but stopped short of calling for an early withdrawal.

"France cannot handle everything on its own," Ms Guigou, a Hollande ally who chairs the Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said after her meeting with President Samba Panza.

The European Union has pledged around 900 troops and the African Union has close to 6,000 already on the ground but the continent's mediator in the crisis said more were needed.

"To achieve a nationwide footprint we need an international contingent of at least 10,000," Mr Denis Sassou Nguesso, the president of the Republic of Congo, told French newspaper Le Figaro in an interview.

Amnesty International said last week that the mostly Christian anti-balaka vigilantes were attempting to exterminate the country's Muslim minority.

"'Ethnic cleansing' of Muslims has been carried out in the western part of the Central African Republic, the most populous part of the country, since early January 2014," Amnesty International said in a report.

The anti-balaka ("anti-machete" in the local Sango language) militias were initially self-defence groups formed in response to abuses committed by rogue former rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka coalition that seized power in March 2013.

With the remnants of Seleka on the back foot since France deployed its forces two months ago, most of the ongoing violence is now blamed on the anti-balaka's attacks.

President Samba Panza, a Christian who took over as interim president last month from former Seleka boss Michel Djotodia, has said she was "going to go to war against the anti-balaka".

French and African troops have been unable to prevent mass looting and stem the cycle of revenge attacks.

The International Federation for Human Rights said on Monday that several attacks by suspected Seleka gunmen had killed at least 22 people in the western town of Bang since Feb 13.

Atrocities, the fear of attacks and a lack of food have displaced a quarter of the country's population, while the United Nations and relief agencies estimate that at least two million people need humanitarian assistance.