BANGUI, Central African Republic – French troops deployed in the strife-torn Central African Republic on Saturday, while the African Union said it would nearly double its force to try to stamp out deadly sectarian violence.
Cheering residents honked horns, danced and banged on saucepans as some 200 French troops rolled into the mainly Christian town of Bouar in the west of the country.
Weary of months of violence from a rebellion that overthrew the government in March, provoking bloody sectarian clashes between Muslim and Christian communities, the residents yelled out “Thank you!” and “Save us!”
The communal violence, which has terrorized rural towns for months, flared in the capital Bangui on Thursday, leaving at least 300 dead in a wave of attacks, the Red Cross said.
Central African Republic President Michel Djotodia declared a three-day period of mourning from Sunday for the victims.
In comments on national radio he said the situation was under control and urged people to return to normal routines.
Djotodia also expressed his gratitude to France for its military help.
French President Francois Hollande, describing the bloodshed as “terrifying”, announced he would send 400 more troops than previously envisaged, boosting a UN-mandated force to 1,600 troops 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 the African Union would boost the regional MISCA force 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,” Hollande said, adding the long-term goal was to “re-establish stability and, when the time is right, organize free and democratic elections”.
MISCA, currently 2,500-strong has been unable to stem the country’s descent into chaos since a motley coalition of mostly Muslim rebel fighters known as Seleka overthrew president Francois Bozize in March.
The Seleka chief Djotodia became president, the first Muslim leader of the mostly Christian country.
Although he informally disbanded the Seleka, the ex-rebels continued to wreak havoc. Local Christians responded by forming vigilante groups and the government quickly lost control of 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.
Doctors Without Borders said in a statement it had treated 190 people in the past two days for injuries such as bullet, machete or knife wounds at the overcrowded local hospital.
In a sign of the anarchy gripping the nation, the Bangui prosecutor on Saturday announced a “war arsenal” including AK47s, ammunition and bags of combat gear had been found at the home of Interior and Security Minister Josue Binoua, an ally of Bozize.
Prosecutor Ghislain Grezenguet said a judicial inquiry had been opened against Binoua, who has often railed against the “Islamic peril” posed by the Seleka rebels.
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.
“It is reassuring to see the French,” said Bangui petrol seller Adolphe.
The relief was also palpable in Bouar, 370 km (230 miles) northwest of the capital, one of France’s main military bases in Africa and a nerve centre for the area that saw some of the worst violence at the height of the Seleka rebellion.
“Save us! We have suffered so much,” shouted Cedric, 15,
Life in the city began to regain some normality on Saturday, with traders reopening their stalls under colourful umbrellas and residents venturing out to check on relatives.
Residents contacted by telephone said only sporadic gunfire was heard on Friday night, in stark contrast to the intense violence of the two previous nights.
The latest violence appeared to vindicate recent warnings from France, the United States and others that the country was on the brink of collapse with tensions soaring between its Christian and Muslim communities.
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.
However, UN leader Ban Ki-moon has warned that up to 9,000 troops could be needed to quell violence that has spread through the country of 4.6 million, of whom 80 percent are Christian.
In an interview with French radio late on Saturday, Ban said the UN must “sooner or later” have a permanent peacekeeping presence in the country.
“I sincerely hope that MISCA will be transformed into a UN peacekeeping force,” he said