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Bangui - France will boost its troop presence in the Central African Republic by the end of the year under a forthcoming United Nations resolution to help prevent the country from spiralling out of control, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday.
Fabius and the European Union aid chief, Kristalina Georgieva, are in the country to drum up support and international interest for a largely forgotten crisis.
The Central African Republic has descended into chaos since mostly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize in March, the latest coup in the country that remains one of the world's poorest despite resources ranging from gold to uranium.
Geographically at the centre of what some strategists have called an “arc of insecurity” involving Islamist fighters from Kenya and Somalia in east Africa to Mauritania in the west, a power vacuum could pave the way for militants to seize control.
France has urged world and regional powers not to ignore the conflict that has already seen more than 400,000 people driven from their homes by acts of violence such as murder and rape.
However, Paris is reluctant to be left to deal with another African hotspot after it felt allies such as the United States were hesitant to help it halt a rebel advance by al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in Mali earlier this year.
The African Union has deployed about 2 500 troops. But its resources are limited, prompting Paris to seek a UN Security Council mandate that would turn the operation into a UN peacekeeping force ultimately supported by French troops.
“We will increase our support, especially in the logistics domain, after United Nations resolutions (are approved). We will also increase troops, a little at first. This will be done before the end of the year,” Fabius said.
Fabius said the resolution was expected around December.
France currently has about 400 troops in Bangui, protecting the airport and French interests. Fabius did not say how many troops will be added, but sources have told Reuters the numbers could be increased to about 700-750.
Fabius said the dissolution of Seleka, a grouping of five northern rebel movements, must be real and concrete.
“We cannot have armed bands roaming the country,” Fabius told a news conference in the riverside capital. “We will not let you down.”
The French minister and EU's aid chief, who were greeted by crowds in Bangui, some holding banners urging France to not to abandon the former colony, met transitional leader Michel Djotodia and Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye.
Djotodia, who was formally sworn in as the transitional president in August, has an 18-month deadline, set by central African heads of state, to organise elections. He has said he will not run in the election.
A senior Central African Republic military official said the country was counting on France because the regional peacekeeping force was not visible on the ground and the population was losing faith in them.
“What we need is more French troops with a clear mandate,” the official said, requesting not to be identified.
However, while the leaders work out how to secure the country enough to hold an election, the situation on the ground continues to get worse, with malnutrition and tuberculosis taking hold and a lack of resources to help patients in need.
“We need a massive plan on health and education, but most important, something must be done about insecurity. Outside the capital it is a cancer,” a surgeon at the only paediatric hospital in Bangui - protected by French troops to stop looting - told the delegation.
The EU's Georgieva said the crisis in Central African Republic was unique because it had hit the entire population.
“The priority is security, security, security. Unless there is a rapid increase in peacekeeping forces to reverse this looting, it will be very hard to get sufficient help to people,” she said. - Reuters