Bangui - The father of a slain French soldier has described how disarmed Muslim fighters in the Central African Republic were lynched by a Christian mob in harrowing testimony that raised the spectre of a new wave of sectarian killing in the troubled state.
Defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted on Wednesday that France's mission to pacify its former colony represented a much more difficult operation than the military intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali earlier this year.
And those remarks were borne out by Philippe Vokaer's account of his final contact with his 23-year-old son Nicolas, one of two French paratroopers killed in a firefight while on a night patrol in the capital Bangui on Monday.
“We had a text exchange the same evening,” Vokaer senior told French daily Le Parisien. “He had witnessed some atrocious scenes. As soon as the French soldiers disarmed the Muslim militia, they saw them being lynched by a Christian mob in the middle of the street. There was nothing the army could do to stop it.”
In Bangui, a humanitarian aid worker who did not want to be identified, told AFP he feared mass reprisals against members of the country's Muslim minority, who are associated with the Seleka coalition behind the March coup which plunged the CAR into anarchic terror.
“What we are faced with now is the spectre of a vicious spiral of reprisals with the village self-defence militias organising 'return matches' against Seleka and the Seleka themselves going on a killing spree as they retreat to their strongholds in the north,” he said.
Despite those fears, the situation in Bangui, where hundreds were slaughtered with clubs and machetes last week, appeared generally calm on Wednesday with residents suggesting that fear levels were subsiding following the weekend deployment of 1 600 French troops.
“Around me this morning people are going out and about in large numbers,” said a resident of the Ben Zvi neighbourhood.
Bangui, which is under an hours-of-darkness curfew, was also quiet overnight with the exception of some sporadic shooting heard close to the national broadcaster's headquarters.
The situation was in sharp contrast to Monday and Tuesday, when rampaging locals pillaged shops owned by Muslims. The scale of any violence outside Bangui remains unclear.
French officers say the vast majority of the armed groups who had brought terror to Bangui were disarmed within 24 hours of the intervention force arriving to back up African troops in the 2 500-strong Misca force that has been in the country for some time but had proved incapable of preventing the recent violence.
Having initially presented operation Sangaris as essentially a humanitarian mission, French officials have in recent days expanded its goals to disarming all armed groups in the country and creating the conditions for free and fair elections.
Le Drian acknowledged that the chaotic situation in CAR made the French operation there more complex than the much bigger intervention in Mali, where France deployed 4 000 troops from January to try and break the backbone of armed Islamist groups who had taken control of much of the north of the country.
“Central Africa may be less demanding in terms of weapons, transport and logistics than operation Serval was in Mali, but it is a lot more difficult because the identification of the enemy is not nearly as simple,” Le Drian said.
The defence minister reiterated that France would be seeking to hand over responsibility for the CAR peace enforcement mission to an African force as soon as it could.
He also rebuffed criticism in France that the Socialist government should have done more to secure concrete international support for the military action. He said Britain, Belgium, Denmark and Poland had all promised practical help.
US President Barack Obama on Tuesday authorised the release of $60 million in military aid to the CAR, some of which is expected to help meet France's costs.
French President Francois Hollande made a brief visit to Bangui on Tuesday evening. After paying tribute to the memory of Vokaer and his fallen comrade, Antoine Le Quinio, 22, Hollande defended the military intervention as the only alternative to “carnage.”
“There was no time to procrastinate,” Hollande said. “France is not here out of any self-interest. France has come to defend human dignity.”
The French leader met briefly with Michel Djotodia, the country's interim president who led the so-called Seleka rebellion that began 12 months ago
Djotodia's Seleka rebels captured Bangui and ousted president Francois Bozize in March. Djotodia became the country's first Muslim president, but while some Seleka members retained their discipline, others became involved in a spree of killing, raping and looting which sparked the creation of Christian vigilante groups in response.