French troops deployed in the strife-torn Central African Republic on Saturday, while the African Union (AU) said it would nearly double its force to try to stamp out deadly sectarian violence.
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 beginning yesterday for the victims.
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 AU would boost the International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA) force to 6,000 troops from a planned 3,600.
MISCA, currently 2,500-strong, has been unable to stem the country’s descent into chaos since a coalition of rebel fighters known as Seleka overthrew former Central African Republic president Francois Bozize in March.
Seleka leader Djotodia became president, the first Muslim leader of the mostly Christian country.
Although he informally disbanded the Seleka, the former rebels continued to wreak havoc.
Local Christians responded by forming vigilante groups and the government quickly lost control of the country.
Reports have described a series of horrors, with security forces and militia gangs razing villages, carrying out public killings and perpetrating widespread rapes.
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.
The Bangui prosecutor on Saturday announced a “war arsenal” including AK-47s, ammunition and bags of combat gear had been found at the home of Central African Republic Minister of Interior and Security 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.
About 200 French troops on Saturday rolled into the mainly Christian town of Bouar in the west of the country.
“It is reassuring to see the French,” Bangui gasoline seller Adolphe said.
The relief was also palpable in Bouar, 370 km northwest of the capital, one of France’s main military bases in Africa and a nerve center for the area that saw some of the worst violence at the height of the Seleka rebellion.
The latest violence appeared to vindicate recent warnings from France, the US 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 Secretary-General 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.
“I sincerely hope that MISCA will be transformed into a UN peacekeeping force,” Ban said.