French expats in Central Africa voice fears

Foreigners said Thursday they feared a spiral of looting and violence as rebels advance on the capital of the Central African Republic, wracked by turmoil since independence from France in 1960.

Although the estimated 1,200 French nationals in the deeply poor nation do not feel particularly threatened as a community, many fear that attacks will be on the rise as tensions mount following the launch of the rebel offensive earlier this month.

A French woman living in the capital Bangui for 28 years said many people were on edge.

"The people fear pillaging and the manipulation of mobs who are ready to do anything," the businesswoman said on condition of anonymity.

The woman, who was evacuated in 1996 when the country witnessed a slew of army mutinies but stayed put when current President François Bozize took power in a 2003 coup, said the situation was a tinderbox.

"It will not take much for things to explode," she said.

Restaurant owner André Lemonnier said the French did not feel targeted despite an attack on the French embassy by a crowd demanding that the former colonial power do more to stem the rebel advance.

"There have been instances of whites having stones thrown at them," Lemonnier said by telephone. "But I do not think that the French are targets. There is no deep hatred towards the French."

Lemonnier, who has been living in the country for 35 years, however stressed the need for caution.

 "Every time there are protests or regime change, one should remain at home," he said. "And above all one should not fan the flames."

Another French woman said she was fearful of possible looting as the "poverty has deepened and the population has increased and people will take advantage of the situation to pillage."

A rebel coalition known as Seleka has seized a string of towns in its sweep across the country since its fighters took up arms on December 10.

Their troops have stopped short of the capital, but UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said the rebels' "contradictory messages and their continued military offensive seem to indicate that they might be intent on taking Bangui".

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France: We must work with Italy to solve diplomatic spat

The French Interior Minister said France and Italy "had to" work together on security issues, two months after a diplomatic spat led to Paris briefly recalling its ambassador.

France: We must work with Italy to solve diplomatic spat
Photo: AFP

Relations between the two countries fractured in February following repeated clashes with Italy's populist coalition government.

Paris was incensed when Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio made a surprise visit to France on February 5th to meet a group of radical “yellow vest” protesters who have led demonstrations against France's centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

READ ALSO What's behind Italy's spat with France?

Christophe Castaner arriving for the meeting i Paris on Thursday. Photo: AFP

France's Interior Minister Christophe Castaner and his Italian counterpart Matteo Salvini met at a meeting of G7 interior ministers in Paris on Thursday.

“I think I can say that the issues of combating illegal immigration or terrorism should not divide us…. We cannot deal with these issues on our own,” Castaner said after a meeting with Salvini.

“When we talk about real life, concrete things, there is no room for arguments, we have to agree,” Salivini added, at a separate news conference.

The Italian minister said he was no longer interested in the “past” and highlighted areas of agreement between the two countries, particularly on the management of the Franco-Italian border.

Salvini said France and Italy had a “common position… on defending external borders” and that France – as Italy had already done – was ready to provide “boats, men and equipment to the Libyan coastguard”.

Castaner, however, was more vague, simply saying G7 ministers had agreed “to strengthen our support for Libya and Morocco through the presence of coastguards”.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in February that a “line was crossed” with Di Maio's visit, which was organised without French authorities being informed.

Analysts and diplomats said relations were affected by the fundamentally different outlooks of Macron, a pro-European centrist, and the eurosceptic government in Rome.

There are also deep-running economic tensions, competition for influence in Libya, and a sense in Italy that France has done little to help its neighbour cope with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in recent years.

The last time Paris recalled its ambassador to Rome was during the World War II when Italy under leader Benito Mussolini invaded France in 1940.

Foreign ministers from the G7 – the United States, Italy, France, Canada, Germany, Britain and Japan – are to meet on Friday and Saturday in the northern French resort of Dinard.