French soldiers patrol on foot in Bangui, in the Central African Republic. Picture: Herve Serefio

New York -

United Nations diplomats will begin hammering out the details of a peacekeeping plan for the Central African Republic on Thursday, hoping to restore order to the strife-torn country.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has recommended deploying a 12 000-strong force to the former French colony, where political and sectarian violence following a coup last year has left thousands dead.

In a 24-page report to the UN Security Council, Ban called for a force of 10 000 soldiers and 1 820 police officers to be sent to CAR to halt the bloodshed and work towards elections.

A first discussion of the report is to take place at the UN on Thursday, but while there is a broad consensus that a peacekeeping mission is inevitable, agreement on fine details is a long way off.

“Everyone agrees that there's likely to be some kind of UN peacekeeping operation, probably by the end of September,” one UN diplomat told AFP.

“But how big, what configuration, what balance between police and army, military and civilians, what will be the exact task? There is still a huge amount of work to be done.”

Under Ban's proposal, the African Union would be required to turn over control of its 6 000-strong peacekeeping force to the UN, as it did during a similar operation in Mali, by September 15.

The African Union however remains reluctant to unconditionally cede control of its operation, arguing for example that any UN force must be placed under the command of an African military officer.

France, which has 2 000 soldiers already on the ground in CAR alongside the African Union force, is expected to submit a draft resolution to the Security Council by the end of the month.

A US budget request submitted Tuesday by US President Barack Obama unusually includes a contingency fund of $150-million largely expected to go towards the US share of funding the peacekeeping force, which would cost about $600-million annually.

Washington was initially reluctant to have a full UN blue-helmet operation in CAR, preferring the AU-led operation, but is coming around to the idea.

“They wanted to see how the AU forces deployed... what was the actual mandate going to be. They're doing the research so that over the long term we're going to get the mission's scope right,” said Peter Yeo, vice-president for public policy at the UN Foundation.

A senior UN official expressed hope of an agreement.

“We had a consensus on Mali in the Security Council; I hope we'll have the same consensus with CAR but we are not there yet,” the official said.

The UN is hoping European nations will contribute to the force, even if their involvement is limited to the training of African troops.

The UN also wants France to leave a token force of a few hundred personnel in the country after the peacekeepers are deployed, as it did in Mali.

Yet while any UN peacekeeping operation is months away, Ban remains keen to secure an immediate surge of military forces into CAR to quell the tide of violence.

“Ban is terrified by the prospect of another Rwanda and wants to show that he is actively trying to do something,” said one official, referring to the horrors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which left an estimated 800 000 people dead in the space of a few months.

After struggling to obtain commitments from around 15 European nations, the UN has turned towards African nations to provide personnel in the interim.

“Africans could more easily and quickly send additional troops, especially if they get logistical assistance,” a senior UN official said. “We expect a more sizeable contribution from the Africans.”

The European Union meanwhile has said it will limit involvement to a short-term 1 000-strong “bridging force”.

Another UN official noted that there was a need for police as much as soldiers.

“In CAR you need police or gendarmerie,” the official said.

Ban's report emphasises the need to strengthen policing, to reflect the unique nature of the situation on the ground.

“The police component is significantly expanded... the simple reality is that the state does not exist or does not work, we have to restart some of these institutions,” a UN official told reporters. - Sapa-AFP