BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union peacekeepers took charge of security at Central African Republic's main airport on Wednesday, easing the burden on French and African troops who are struggling to contain months of sectarian slaughter in the country.

Thousands have taken refuge in a sprawling settlement of cardboard shacks and tarpaulins beside the airport in the capital Bangui to escape the violence that has raised fears of further turmoil in a fragile region.

Many others, including almost all of the city's Muslim population, have fled, U.N. and aid officials have said.

French troops formally handed over to the EU peacekeepers, who are also commanded by a French officer, Major-General Philippe Ponties, at the airport, the bloc said in a statement.

The European Union launched its peacekeeping force in the former French colony at the beginning of April after weeks of delays caused by shortages of soldiers and equipment.

Only about 150 EU troops have arrived so far. But the strength of the force is expected to continue building until it reaches its target of 800-1,000 soldiers in June, the EU said.

The peacekeepers will also eventually move out to secure areas beyond the airport. Countries including France, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Portugal and Spain have pledged soldiers or logistical help.

Around 2,000 French troops and 5,000 African peacekeepers have so far failed to stop the conflict that erupted after mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power a year ago in the majority Christian state.

Seleka's time in power was marked by killings and other rights abuses, prompting the creation of the mainly Christian "anti-balaka" self-defense militias who have also been accused of atrocities.

Seleka leaders stepped down in January under international pressure but the peacekeepers and a weak interim government have failed to stamp their authority on the impoverished and landlocked country, which has been riven by political instability and conflict since independence from France in 1960.

(Reporting by Adrian Croft)




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