BOZOUM, Central African Republic (AP) — Thousands of international troops dispatched to volatile Central African Republic are there to help keep the country from breaking apart, France's president said Friday, days after the French parliament voted to prolong the country's mission in its former colony wracked by violence between Christians and Muslims.
It was the second visit to the capital, Bangui, by French President Francois Hollande since France boosted its troop levels here to 1,600 in December as part of "Operation Sangaris." Three months later, France has promised another 400 soldiers, and the neighborhood immediately surrounding the airport remains a hotbed of fighting between peacekeepers and the militiamen they are seeking to disarm.
With a European force of 1,000 on the way and African forces already there, Hollande said a total of 9,000 soldiers would be in place to "end the score settling, re-establish the government's authority, allow dialogue and avoid that the slightest attempt to partition Central African Republic."
The French mission has become more complex than anticipated, raising fears of a protracted and bloody conflict. Already two French soldiers have been killed while trying to disarm fighters here.
The arrival of additional French forces in early December coincided with a coup attempt by Christian militiamen seeking to overthrow a Muslim rebel government accused of committing scores of human rights abuses. The French troops initially were warmly welcomed by many in the capital of Bangui, with Christian refugees cheering at the sound of French helicopters overhead.
In recent months, though, frustration has grown with the lack of security in many neighborhoods. The burned remains of looted Muslim shops are now littered not only with anti-Muslim graffiti but also with "No to France" and "Sangaris leave!"
The Sangaris forces are now fanning out even deeper into the turbulent countryside in this nation of 4.6 million people. French troops have arrived within the last week in the southwestern town of Carnot, located 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Cameroonian border.
Local Christian militia and fighters from further afield have attacked Muslims, saying they are trying to disarm the remnants of a brutal Muslim rebel regime that was ousted from power in January. The Christian anti-Balaka fighters already have issued an ultimatum.
"If the French disarm us, how are we going to do our work to protect our people?" says Stephane Orofei, 28, a local militia leader. "The Sangaris have a week to leave our town."
The head of the Sangaris mission, Gen. Francisco Soriano, said he was hopeful that the deeply divided community could heal its wounds. Upon arrival, he met with religious and town leaders.
"I know that many families here have truly suffered, but we must look forward now," Soriano told the community meeting.
"Central African Republic needs all its people, Christians and Muslims," he later told the AP. "They have to relearn how to live together."
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Sylvie Corbet contributed from Paris.