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CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

French action in CAR is ‘dangerous’: Hollande

French President François Hollande admitted on Tuesday that France's intervention in the Central African Republic was "dangerous" but vital to avoid a bloodbath. The head of state paid a visit to French troops in CAR on Tuesday night, a day after two were killed by rebels.

French action in CAR is 'dangerous': Hollande
President Francois Hollande (L) salutes French soldiers in Bangui. Hollande arrived late on Tuesday in curfew-bound Bangui where two French soldiers were killed hours earlier. Photo: Sia Kambou/AFP

Hollande flew into the curfew-bound capital Bangui from Johannesburg after attending a memorial service for South African peace icon Nelson Mandela.

Upon arrival, the French leader paid tribute to his country's two fallen soldiers, bowing before their coffins at a base at Bangui airport.

The French campaign to restore security in its former colony is "dangerous" but "necessary if one wants to avoid carnage here," he said.

"It was time to act," Hollande said. "In Bangui itself, nearly 400 people  were killed… There was no time to procrastinate," he added, referring to a day of bloodshed last week.

The first losses of the French campaign overnight Monday underlined the risks involved in a complex mission to disarm rogue rebels who have plunged the country into chaos and fuelled Christian-Muslim violence.

Antoine Le Quinio, 22, and Nicolas Vokaer, 23, both members of the crack Eighth Parachute regiment based at Castres in southwestern France, died after a fierce firefight during a night patrol in Bangui.

France has deployed 1,600 troops to halt the sectarian-tinged violence in the impoverished but mineral-rich country.

"France is not here in the Central African Republic out of any self-interest," Hollande said. "France has come to defend human dignity."

In a statement earlier Tuesday, he said the two paratroopers had given their lives to save many more.

Hollande repeated his call for a general election to be held in the second half of next year, rather than in early 2015 as currently planned.

During his brief four-hour visit, Hollande held talks with Michel Djotodia, the country's interim president who led the so-called Seleka rebellion that began 12 months ago.

The French president, who has accused the former rebel leader of doing nothing to stop the sectarian violence, also met with religious figures before departing Bangui late Tuesday.

US President Barack Obama has authorised the release of $60 million in military aid for the Central African Republic.

The White House said the aid would be funnelled to France, the African Union and other countries contributing forces to an international coalition in the Central African Republic.

Djotodia's Seleka rebels captured Bangui and ousted president Francois Bozize in March.

Djotodia became the country's first Muslim president, but while some Seleka members remained loyal to him, others started terrorising the population and government forces were powerless to stop them.

Months of massacres, rapes and looting followed, with locals forming Christian vigilante groups in response.

The French troops on the ground are supporting an African contingent that is due to grow from 2,500 men.

Although the French military says most of the militias have been disarmed, the real challenge is to contain Christian anger against the Seleka rebels and the Muslim minority with whom they are associated.

Looting in Bangui

Lower-level violence resumed Tuesday with Muslim-owned shops in the Combattants quarter of the town being looted. The owners were taken out of the area by African troops for their own safety.

AFP reporters witnessed armed men circulating on at least two pick-ups, while French troops had set up a roadblock on the main road north from the capital to check everyone coming in and out for weapons.

Bangui was last week the scene of horrendous violence with nearly 400 people killed, most of them clubbed or hacked to death.

The International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday gathered more than 100 bodies and loaded them onto lorries for burial in a mass grave in the Bimbo quarter of the capital.

One resident, Mahmoud, who had come into the centre of Bangui to buy water, said he feared the violence may recur.

"They smashed up the Muslims' houses. My children are in a monastery and me and my wife are staying with Christian neighbours," he said.

"This place is an open wound — it has to be treated immediately or gangrene will set in."

A third of the population needs food aid and the UN children's agency UNICEF said that nearly 480,000 people – mostly women and children – had been displaced since the March coup.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported Tuesday that an estimated 108,000 people had been displaced in recent weeks in Bangui alone, many of them opting to sleep outdoors rather than risk spending the night in their homes.

In Paris, the centre-right opposition raised questions over the length of the intervention, how it will be financed and France's alleged isolation.

The government has played down the costs of the operation, which it hopes will be partly covered by the European Union.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament on Tuesday that the French commitment in the country would be a matter of months, not years.

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CAR

French troops go from heroes to villains in CAR

Six months after being welcomed as saviours in the Central African Republic, the 2,000 French soldiers in the country face growing hostility from a population accusing them of failing to curb interfaith violence.

French troops go from heroes to villains in CAR
Two girls stand next to a sign with anti-France graffiti and a Hindu swastika in the Muslim district of PK5 in Bangui on June 4th, 2014. Photo: Marco Longari/AFP

France launched Operation Sangaris in its former colony in December to stop the violence that exploded after a March 2013 coup by the mainly Muslim rebels of the Seleka alliance in the majority-Christian country.

Civilians cheered the arrival of the French troops after enduring massacres by rogue Seleka fighters and then revenge killings targeting Muslim civilians that left the streets of the capital Bangui strewn with corpses.

But six months on, the landlocked African nation remains the scene of deadly clashes and its people are turning against their former heroes for failing to disarm rival sides.

Hostility towards the soldiers has been brewing for weeks in the former French colony. It peaked on May 28th when 17 people were massacred at a Bangui church and 27 were abducted, according to the United Nations, with no intervention by peacekeeping forces.

French troops were booed by residents over the weekend in Miskine, a Christian neighbourhood of Bangui near a Muslim one. In Muslim districts chants of "No to France!" and anti-French insults are now commonly heard.

"When they arrived, we had hope that they were going to disarm the country," said Noel Ngoulo, secretary general of Bangui University.

"But as time has gone on, the population noticed that the disarmament was delayed. People are angry at the French because they have the impression that the mission objective has changed, from a mission of disarmament to one of simple intervention."

'Manipulation by radicals'

Following a first phase of operations in Bangui, French forces secured the route linking the capital to the Cameroonian border, which is an essential supply corridor. In the east, they now operate in Bambari region, a "friction zone" where ex-Seleka members have set up a new general staff headquarters.

French special forces have been operational for the past few days in northern territory controlled by Seleka fighters from the flashpoint town of Ndele.

The French soldiers have tried to ensure their neutrality amid the near total exodus of the Muslim population from Bangui and other main towns, but Christian and Muslim militias each accuse France of aiding the other side.

In the Muslim neighbourhood of PK-5 in Bangui, "when the French arrived there was fear," said Oumarou, a physics professor, arguing that the military presence provoked "the anti-balaka … to launch attacks."

French military spokesman Gilles Jaron blamed rising anti-French sentiment on "manipulation by radical elements who want to turn the population against French soldiers."

General Dominique Trinquand, a former head of France's military mission to the United Nations, said that the "asymmetrical nature of combat" made the task of peacekeepers "very difficult", since roving gangs armed with machetes were up against troops in armoured vehicles.

Apart from sporadic peaks of violence, "we reached a certain level of use for military force," Jaron declared. "Now we have to establish the economic and political foundations" in a country with a barely functioning state and a ruined economy.

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