French reinforcements arrived in the Central African Republic capital, Bangui, yesterday to bolster a force due to rise to 1,200 in coming days, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
“The operation has effectively started,” Le Drian told RFI radio of patrols by French troops, adding that one company had arrived in Bangui from a French base in nearby Gabon, and that a helicopter group was due to be in place later in the day.
He added that the night had been calm after fighting on Thursday between mainly Muslim former rebels now in charge of the country and a mix of local Christian militia and fighters loyal to former Central African Republic president Francois Bozize. A witness and an aid worker said at least 105 people were killed.
Speaking hours after securing UN backing for the mission on Thursday, French President Francois Hollande said that the French operation would be limited in time with the aim of handing over security to African forces when possible.
However, doubts immediately emerged over the exact timetable. Le Drian said “it was not impossible” that France could wind down its presence after six months while Central African Republic Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye said it was likely they would have to remain longer.
“Six months seems a bit short to me, in my view we are looking at a year. If it [the French force] manages to sort of the problems, so much the better, but I would prefer that it stays in place for a year,” Tiangaye told RTL radio.
The country has slipped into chaos since mainly Muslim rebels seized power in March, leading to sectarian violence with the Christian majority. However, the violence on Thursday was the worst the capital has seen this year.
As of Thursday, France had about 650 troops based at Bangui airport — a number Hollande said would double immediately with reinforcements from French bases in neighboring countries.
It is the second major African operation for France this year after it sent troops into Mali to halt an advance by al-Qaeda-linked rebels toward Bamako.
French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius said the annual Africa-France summit, which was to start in Paris yesterday, would discuss Central African Republic operations, including the future handover from France to African-led or UN-led forces.