BANGUI (Reuters) – French soldiers were cheered yesterday as they began patrolling densely-populated neighbourhoods of Central African Republic’s capital Bangui, which has been rocked by waves of killings between Muslim and Christian communities.
Attacks on civilians in Bangui continued for a third day, aid workers said. Groups of heavily armed gunmen sped around its dusty streets after the expiry of a 3 p.m. (1400 GMT) deadline for all forces, except foreign peacekeepers and the presidential guard, to return to barracks.
France is deploying 1,600 troops to its former colony, where at least 400 people have died in three days of violence between the Seleka rebel group that seized power in March and Christian self-defence militias, which has spilled over into religious violence in the capital and beyond.
Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s Emergency Director, said Seleka fighters burnt houses in Bossangoa, about 300 km (190 miles) north of Bangui, after French jets flew overhead. They killed a woman, leaving her body next to her crying baby, he said. Central African Republic has been gripped by chaos since Seleka toppled former President Francois Bozize and embarked on months of looting, rapes and killings. Seleka’s leader Michel Djotodia, installed as CAR’s interim president, has lost control of his loose band of fighters.
The UN Security Council authorised France on Thursday to use deadly force to help African peacekeepers struggling to restore order. Paris sprang into action after an attack on Bangui the same day by Christian militias and gunmen loyal to Bozize that ignited the worst violence in a year of crisis.
French helicopters and warplanes flew low over the dilapidated riverside capital on Saturday. Residents in the Combattants neighbourhood cheered French soldiers as they patrolled on foot down narrow streets.
“If they can get into the neighbourhoods, we might start seeing a reduction in these crimes,” said Amy Martin, head of the UN Officer for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA. “The level of atrocities and the lack of humanity, the senseless killing, defies imagination.” French reinforcements crossed into western Central African Republic from Cameroon on Saturday while troops also moved northward from the capital in a bid to quickly pacify the sparsely populated interior, army spokesman Gilles Jarron said.