Bangui residents welcome troops

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A woman walks past French soldiers on patrol in Bangui, Central African Republic. Picture: Herve Serefio

Bangui -

Terrified Bangui residents anxiously waited for French troops to secure the city on Sunday before emerging from their homes after a wave of sectarian violence killed hundreds.

The French force received a triumphant welcome on Saturday as it deployed across other parts of the Central African Republic in a bid to stem the chaos that has gripped the country since a March coup.

The communal strife that has wracked the Central African bush for months flared in the capital on Thursday, leaving at least 300 people dead, according to the local Red Cross.

French forces have secured strategic locations in Bangui and were expected to face little resistance, but traumatised residents were eager Sunday to see them move deeper into the neighbourhoods.

“We're waiting for the French to enter our districts and be sure we won't encounter any of those gunmen,” one resident told AFP.

“We're all exhausted from living in fear. We want this to end,” said another, declining to give his name.

Central African Republic President Michel Djotodia declared a three-day period of mourning from Sunday for the victims.

In comments on national radio, he thanked the former colonial power for its military help, said the situation was under control and urged people to return to their normal routines.

On Saturday, cheering residents honked horns, danced and banged on saucepans as some 200 French troops rolled into the western town of Bouar from neighbouring Cameroon.

“Thank you” and “Save us”, yelled some of the thousands of people massed to see the convoy bristling with guns and French fighters in high-tech combat gear swoop into town.

French President Francois Hollande, describing the Bangui bloodshed as “terrifying”, announced that he would send 400 more troops than previously envisaged, boosting the force to 1 600 by Saturday night.

He said this number would not increase and most troops would not stay more than six months.

The French presidency also announced that the African Union would boost the regional MISCA force also on the ground to 6 000 troops from a planned 3 600.

Hollande said the job of the French and African troops would be “to disarm militias who are acting like gangsters, raping women and even killing people in hospitals”.

“I believe we can quickly put a stop to the current atrocities and massacres,” he said, adding that the long-term goal was to “re-establish stability and, when the time is right, organise free and democratic elections”.

MISCA, at its current strength of 2 500 and lacking equipment, has made little impact since a motley coalition of mostly Muslim fighters known as Seleka overthrew Francois Bozize nine months ago.

The Seleka chief Djotodia became interim president, the first Muslim leader of the mostly Christian country.

He disbanded Seleka but while some militiamen remained loyal to him, others went rogue and warlords soon imposed a reign of terror on large swathes of land.

Local Christians responded by forming vigilante groups and the government was never able to assert its authority over the sprawling, landlocked country.

Reports have described a series of horrors, with security forces and militia gangs razing villages, carrying out public killings and perpetrating widespread rapes.

On Saturday overwhelmed Red Cross staff continued to pick up dead and mutilated bodies - mostly clubbed or hacked to death - from the streets of the capital.

A surge in communal violence has raised international fears of large-scale ethnic cleansing and even talk of a “pre-genocidal” situation.

Djotodia accused forces loyal to the exiled Bozize, who still has allies in the coalition government and has hinted he had not given up on his old job, of being behind the vigilantes.

The Bangui prosecutor on Saturday announced that a “war arsenal” including AK47s, ammunition and bags of combat gear had been found at the home of Interior Minister Josue Binoua, an ally of Bozize.

In a show of strength, French troops on Saturday patrolled Bangui and a fighter jet flew low over the city, where bodies still lay abandoned outside parliament.

Hollande ordered the launch of operation “Sangaris” - named after a local butterfly - on Thursday after winning a UN Security Council mandate to send a peacekeeping force to the country.

The UN resolution gives the French-backed African force a 12-month mandate and the right to use “all necessary measures” to restore order.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon told French radio on Saturday that he hoped the continental force could be transformed into a larger UN peacekeeping force of up to 9 000 troops. - Sapa-AFP

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