The EU on Monday agreed to send hundreds of troops to the Central African Republic (CAR) in a rare joint military mission aimed at ending months of sectarian violence.
Saying Europe was “deeply concerned by the extreme insecurity and instability” in the impoverished nation, EU foreign ministers gave “political approval” to the rapid deployment of a force expected to number between 400 and 600.
The move came just hours after members of a national transitional council on Monday elected Bangui Mayor Catherine Samba-Panza interim president, tasked with restoring peace and organizng general elections by the middle of next year.
Meanwhile, an EU-UN donors’ conference in Brussels gathered US$496 million in pledges this year for the country, where almost 1 million people, or 20 percent of the population, have been displaced by fighting.
As the European foreign ministers discussed what will be the EU’s first major ground operation in six years, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the country was in “a crisis of epic proportions” and urged the world “to pull CAR back from the brink of further atrocities.”
“We face a political and humanitarian emergency in the Central African Republic,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. “We clearly need to do something.”
The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) on Monday said it was running out of food for a growing number of homeless people, with the spreading unrest hobbling distribution efforts.
The WFP said 38 trucks carrying rice were stuck at the Cameroon border with the drivers refusing to cross due to the threat of attacks.
The EU military mission is to help establish a safe and secure environment around the capital, Bangui, where 1,000 people were reportedly killed last month alone in clashes between Christian and Muslim militias.
It will back up French and African forces and eventually hand over to African or UN peacekeepers after a four to six-month period.
The EU “bridging force” is likely to be asked to protect Bangui’s airport, where about 120,000 people have fled in fear of the inter-communal violence.
Once a UN mandate has been obtained for the mission, which may be approved as early as tomorrow in New York, EU planners hope to get troops on the ground by late next month, diplomats said.
Command would be handed to France with headquarters in Greece.
Samba-Panza was chosen as interim president after two rounds of voting, becoming the first female leader in the country’s history. She beat out Desire Zanga-Kolingba, the son of a former president, in the runoff on Monday.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius described the 59-year-old Samba-Panza as a “very remarkable woman.”
Samba-Panza, a longtime corporate lawyer in the insurance industry, took over the mayor’s office in June last year.
She faces the enormous task of stemming anarchy and bloodshed that has left an untold number dead since a coup in March last year.
An armed Christian movement known as the anti-Balaka arose in opposition to the mostly Muslim Seleka rebellion that seized power then.
“I call on my children, especially the anti-Balaka, to put down their arms and stop all the fighting. The same goes for the ex-Seleka — they should not have fear. I don’t want to hear any more talk of murders and killings,” she said.
“I’m also calling on the international community to help us quickly restore order in in our country which today is on the brink of chaos,” she said.