France said its troops will begin to disarm rebels in the Central African Republic on Monday, as terrified residents in the capital Bangui holed up in their homes after a wave of sectarian violence left nearly 400 dead.
Speaking on Sunday evening, the French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that the operation to disarm rebel groups would begin “tomorrow morning”.
“The period of impunity is over,” he said, speaking on French radio station RTL.
French army spokesman Colonel Gilles Jaron said the contingent had reached its full strength of 1,600 by Sunday and troops were on patrol “throughout” Bangui as well as other towns and forest areas.
He noted tension between the French soldiers and former Seleka rebels who have been terrorising citizens since carrying out a March coup.
“I think they have understood they will have to be re-grouped, disarmed, that the French force is imposing itself in the capital at their expense, which is creating tension,” said Jaron.
A French patrol came under fire near the airport on Sunday, but a military source said no one was injured.
Communal violence that erupted after the coup — pitting Muslims and Christians against each other in tit-for-tat attacks — flared in Bangui on Thursday, killing nearly 400 people.
“We have counted 394 dead in the last three days,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on France 3 television.
‘Exhausted from living in fear’
UN children’s agency UNICEF told AFP in Bangui nearly 480,000 people, mostly women and children, had been displaced within the country since it plunged into chaos after a March coup.
French forces received a triumphant welcome Saturday as residents cheered and danced as they deployed across parts of the country in a bid to stem the chaos.
But traumatised residents were eager to see the troops move deeper into the neighbourhoods.
“We’re waiting for the French to enter our districts and be sure we won’t encounter any of those gunmen,” one resident told AFP.
“We’re all exhausted from living in fear. We want this to end,” said another, declining to give his name.
In comments on national radio, Central African Republic interim president Michel Djotodia thanked the former colonial power for its military help.
Djotodia, the former chief of a motley coalition of mostly Muslim fighters known as Seleka, took power after ousting Francois Bozize nine months ago.
Asked about Djotodia’s future, Hollande said: “We can’t leave in place a president who hasn’t been able to do anything, who let things happen.”
Djotodia, the first Muslim leader of the mostly Christian country, disbanded Seleka, but while some militiamen remained loyal to him, others went rogue and imposed a reign of terror in the countryside.
Local Christians responded by forming vigilante groups and the government was never able to assert its authority over 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.
Djotodia has accused forces loyal to the exiled Bozize, who still has allies in the coalition government and has hinted he had not given up on his old job, of being behind the vigilantes.
Majority of French oppose intervention
A violence soared last week France announced it would send another 400 soldiers while the African Union plans to boost the regional MISCA force also on the ground 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.”
Despite the president’s optimism, an opinion poll published by OpinionWay on Sunday in France showed that a strong majority of French people — 64 percent — disapproved of the intervention.
Hollande ordered the launch of operation “Sangaris” — named after a local butterfly — on Thursday after winning a UN Security Council mandate.
It comes on the heels of a French operation in Mali, where some 4,000 troops intervened in January to drive out Islamists who had seized the north of the west African nation.
The European Commission said in a statement it will deploy its humanitarian air service — ECHO Flight — to open up supplies into and out of Bangui. The first plane, with space for five tonnes of cargo, will arrive in neighbouring Cameroon on Monday. AFP