By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council approved on Tuesday the deployment of European troops to Central African Republic, where African peacekeepers and French troops are struggling to halt worsening violence between Christians and Muslims.
Almost one million people, or a quarter of the population, have been displaced by fighting since the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group seized power in March last year in the majority Christian country. At least 2,000 people are estimated to have been killed.
The United Nations has warned that the conflict in the landlocked former French colony is at risk of spiraling into genocide. France sent 1,600 troops to Central African Republic last month to assist some 5,000 African Union peacekeepers, while the European Union agreed last week to send around 500 troops.
French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said the European troops would take over from French forces protecting some 100,000 displaced people who have sought refuge at the airport in the Central African Republic's capital of Bangui.
It was unclear, however, as to which European countries would contribute troops or when they would arrive in the country.
"The European Union will protect these people and it will allow the French forces to deploy more strongly through the city of Bangui ... and beyond Bangui to the rest of the country," Araud told reporters after the council meeting.
"It's really quite a challenge because there is an incredible amount of resentment and hatred between the two communities," he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to report to the Security Council next month on options for a likely U.N. force within six months. Some western diplomats and U.N. officials said the African Union wanted a year to try and stop the fighting.
Araud said a U.N. peacekeeping operation was needed, but "we have to discuss it with the African Union and we won't have a U.N. force without ... the support of the African Union."
"The ceiling of 6,000 soldiers of the African Union is considered now too low because frankly the situation is very, very dire and the country is huge. So the (United Nations) secretariat is thinking at least 10,000 soldiers are necessary," Araud said.
He said transforming the African Union force into a U.N. operation would also bring guaranteed funding and an experienced civilian component to help rebuild Central African Republic's state institutions, which have basically disintegrated.
Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, elected by a transitional assembly last week, has pledged to open talks with armed groups and take the country to elections, scheduled to be held by early next year. She has called for more international troops to be deployed.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the African and French troops in early December, and also created a sanctions regime by imposing an arms embargo on Central African Republic that requires all countries to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of arms and related materiel.
On Tuesday, it added targeted sanctions - travel bans and asset freezes - to that sanctions regime. A Security Council committee will now be able to blacklist anyone who violates the arms embargo as well as human rights abusers and those who support armed groups by exploiting natural resources, among other things.
Central African Republic is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium, but decades of instability and the spillover from conflicts in its larger neighbors have left the country mired in cycles of crisis.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols, editing by G Crosse)