UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon raised the possibility Tuesday that conflict-wracked Central African Republic could be divided as a result of sectarian brutality and called for a robust international force, including a possible U.N. peacekeeping force, to avoid mass atrocities.
Ban's comments marked the first time the U.N. chief has raised the possibility of the impoverished country being divided into Christian and Muslim regions. He coupled it with a warning that the international response doesn't yet match the gravity of the situation and a plea for global action in the face of escalating sectarian killings and widespread lawlessness.
Ban announced that he is sending Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Edmond Mulet to the country to consult with the African Union about possibly transforming the African force there into a U.N. peacekeeping force. He also called on the European Union to accelerate deployment of its military operation, and said he spoke to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and asked France to consider deploying additional troops.
France has sent 1,600 troops to its former colony to bolster nearly 6,000 peacekeepers from African nations who are working to stabilize the country, which has been in chaos since a March 2013 coup.
The EU mission, expected to comprise 500 to 600 troops, will be deployed to guard the airport in the capital, Bangui, where 100,000 people have taken refuge. French Ambassador Gerard Araud has said this will free up French troops to move beyond the airport and take up security operations in Bangui and beyond.
More than 1,000 people have been killed and nearly 1 million forced from their homes in the Central African Republic, or CAR, since December in violence pitting Christians and Muslims against each other.
Ban warned that the situation is worsening.
"Both Muslims and Christians have been murdered and forced to flee their homes," the secretary-general said. "The sectarian brutality is changing the country's demography. The de facto partition of the CAR is a distinct risk."
He urged the international community to support the AU force and urged other countries to contribute troops as well to help stabilize the country.
"We cannot just continue to say 'never again.' This, we have said so many times," Ban said. "We must act concertedly and now to avoid continued atrocities on a massive scale."
U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Tuesday that additional troops are needed in CAR to address "the very complex security situation." American military involvement has largely been limited to airlifting in Burundian and Rwandan peacekeepers.
The secretary-general is expected to report to the U.N. Security Council in late February or early March with recommendations on possibly turning the AU force into a better equipped and financed U.N. peacekeeping operation. According to U.N. diplomats, the African Union wanted to remain in charge of the peacekeeping effort for a year, but it is likely to come under pressure to let the U.N. take over because of the worsening situation on the ground.
Ban cautioned that even if the change to a U.N. peacekeeping force "looks increasingly necessary, it would take time for it to happen." Normally, it takes at least five or six months to get a U.N. peacekeeping force — in this case probably at least 10,000 troops — on the ground.
Activists in CAR have long called for a U.N. force, believing that it will be better equipped and include a police contingent that could help better secure Bangui.
Stopping the violence will involve intervening in rapidly deteriorating mob situations and traveling into some of the most remote corners of Africa.
The sectarian nature of the conflict is an especially touchy subject.
Whether U.N. troops could do what the French — who are far more aggressive — have not been able to do in restoring law and order is also a question mark. Observers recall, for example, U.N. peacekeepers allowing M23 rebels to march into Goma, the main city in eastern Congo, in 2012.
In Bangui, Christian fighters who armed themselves to retaliate against Muslim rebels came under growing criticism Tuesday, with the U.N. accusing them of contributing to a "climate of complete impunity." On Monday, the head of the French military mission, Gen. Francisco Soriano, called them "enemies of Central African Republic and peace."
In a sign that France now may be stepping up its efforts to disarm the Christian anti-Balaka fighters, French troops on Tuesday seized a large weapons cache from a Christian neighborhood of Bangui. Among the weapons found were anti-tank mines, more than 100 mortar rounds, plastic explosive bricks and other ammunitions.
Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, an anti-Balaka leader, responded by defending his fighters as "young Central Africans who had risen up and sacrificed their lives for the people when no regular army existed to protect the nation."
Meanwhile, thousands of Muslim civilians who had not been able to flee the country last week aboard huge trucks bound for neighboring Chad sheltered at mosques and waited for armed escorts to take them out of the volatile capital.
The Christian militiamen initially described their movement as one to protect civilians from attacks by the Seleka rebels, who overthrew the president of a decade leaving the national army in shambles. In recent weeks, though, they have taken part in mob killings of Muslim civilians.
At a mosque in the PK12 neighborhood of Bangui, some 3,500 Muslims remained Tuesday where they slept clenching bows and arrows for protection.
"We need trucks to take us to safety," said Marabu Hussein Aba Ali.
Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal and Hippolyte Marboua in Bangui, Central African Republic contributed to this report.
Follow Jerome Delay on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeromedelay.