By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday he has asked France to consider sending more troops to the Central African Republic because the international response to the crisis "does not yet match the gravity of the situation."
Ban said violence between Christians and Muslims continued to worsen and he was gravely concerned that the violence in the landlocked former French colony could spiral into a genocide.
Almost 1 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 have been killed.
"The sectarian brutality is changing the country's demography," Ban told reporters. "We must do more to prevent more atrocities, protect civilians, restore law and order, provide humanitarian assistance and hold the country together."
"The international response must be robust with a credible deployment of force ... It must be swift if we are to prevent the worst-case scenario," said Ban, who is due to report to the United Nations Security Council in March on options for transforming the current African Union peacekeeping force into a U.N. operation.
France sent 1,600 troops to the Central African Republic in December to assist some 5,000 African Union peacekeepers, while the European Union has also agreed to send around 500 troops.
Ban said the Central African Republic's interim President Catherine Samba-Panza had formally requested a U.N. operation, but he added that even if the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force appeared "increasingly necessary," it would take time.
"I call on the European Union to accelerate the deployment of its military operation," he said. "I spoke yesterday with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and asked France to consider deploying additional troops, I'm urging other willing member states to contribute as well."
AFRICAN UNION RELUCTANCE
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said that Fabius had told Ban it was necessary to establish a U.N. peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic by mid-year to assume authority from the French, EU and African troops.
"This passage under U.N. authorities will allow the necessary adjustment in the volume of forces," said Nadal, without elaborating on whether that meant France might send additional troops to be part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation.
Ban said he planned to speak with Fabius about the Central African Republic again later on Tuesday. He spoke with Samba-Panza and African Union Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma earlier on Tuesday about the situation.
Some Western diplomats and U.N. officials have said that the African Union wanted its force to be given a year to try to stop the fighting before the United Nations takes over.
"It's true that the African Union was a bit reluctant to have it immediately transforming ... to U.N. peacekeeping operations," Ban said. But he signaled that due to worsening violence, the group had been persuaded to back a U.N. force.
Ban said deputy U.N. peacekeeping chief Edmond Mulet would travel to the Central African Republic this week to consult with African Union representatives on the possible transformation of the AU force into a U.N. operation.
Ban told the Security Council in November that a U.N. force of up to 9,000 troops and 1,700 police could be needed for Central African Republic, but that it could only be deployed if certain conditions were in place, like a political transition framework and when the transitional government to distinguish between forces who represent the state and those who do not.
Samba-Panza has pledged to open talks with armed groups and lead the Central African Republic up to elections, which are scheduled to be held by early next year.
(Additional reporting by John Irish; Editing by Jan Paschal)