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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - African countries committed troops Friday to a rapid-deployment emergency force to stamp out future conflict on the continent, at the close of an African Union summit dominated by bloodshed in two nations.
“We have decided the establishment of an African rapid reaction force.... States are to provide forces to conduct operations,” said newly appointed AU chair and Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
The promise of troops followed two days of talks where leaders warned urgent solutions were needed to prevent South Sudan and the Central African Republic from “falling into the abyss”, in the words of Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
The meeting was meant to focus on agriculture and food security, but the 54-member bloc yet again spent most of the time bogged down trying to resolve conflict in member states.
AU commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma confirmed nine nations had promised to send soldiers to the force, which was set up in principle at a summit last year and is seen as a step towards a permanent standby African peacekeeping force.
But she gave no further details on timelines or its possible size.
When crises break, “it costs us much more the longer we wait.... If there could be a quick response maybe we could save lives,” Dlamini-Zuma said.
The promises came amid calls to boost support for a peacekeeping mission on the ground in the Central African Republic and send monitors to oversee a shaky ceasefire in South Sudan.
Countries who have committed troops are Algeria, Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mauritania, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, Dlamini-Zuma said.
The Central African Republic descended into chaos 10 months ago after rebels overthrew the government, sparking violence between the Christian majority and Muslim minority that has uprooted a million people out of a population of 4.6 million.
A donor conference is scheduled for Saturday to raise cash for the more than 5 000-troop AU mission, which is deployed alongside 1 600 French soldiers and is underfunded and in dire need of extra support, the conference heard.
While African troops serve in United Nations missions across the continent, including South Sudan and the Central African Republic, a long-planned standby peacekeeping force has yet to materialise.
“A very big problem for the African Union is of course financing their operations,” said UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, calling for “more action” to bolster standby capacities.
Diplomats suggested that even when the Central African force was at its full strength, it may struggle to secure vast areas outside the capital Bangui, hinting at a need to increase troop numbers in the future.
Despite a new government being put in place, there has been no let-up in the horrific interreligious clashes, with French troops launching a major operation Friday to retake the rebel-held town of Sibut.
The European Union, which as approved a 500-strong force for the Central African Republic, pledged 45 million euros ($61 million) on Friday in both military and political funding.
Talks on South Sudan also took place on the sidelines of the main AU summit, as east African leaders met to bolster peace efforts following the fragile ceasefire they brokered last week.
Both UN special envoy Haile Menkerios and US special envoy Donald Booth said it was “critical” monitoring teams be put swiftly in place to report on any violations, including by foreign forces.
Both the South Sudanese government and rebels have accused each other of violating the deal, but insist they are committed to ending bloodshed in which thousands of people have been killed and more than 850,000 forced from their homes.
“The cessation of hostilities is not holding 100 percent, in fact there are several skirmishes, very serious ones in a couple of cases,” Eliasson said.
“The South Sudan situation is like a wound... where there is a risk of an infection, and if that spreads and this becomes a regional issue, it is getting more dangerous.”
Clashes continued Friday, one week after the ceasefire came into force, with aid agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) saying its hospital staff in the town of Leer had fled fighting, carrying “dozens” of the most sick patients to hide in the bush.