By Crispin Dembassa-Kette
BANGUI (Reuters) - The top priority of a new European Union peacekeeping force in Central African Republic is to restore stability in the capital, the force commander, French Major-General Philippe Ponties, told a news conference on Friday.
Thousands of people have been killed in intercommunal violence in the former French colony in recent months and close to a million have been displaced from their homes.
"The objective that we are looking for, and which I think we share with most of the international community, is to make it so each citizen of Central African Republic, whatever their communal background, can see a positive future," Ponties said.
"There will be 850 soldiers (by June) who will be deployed to contribute to the security of the airport in Bangui and the establishment of a stable and secure environment in the third and fifth districts of the capital," he said.
Mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the land-locked country last year, saying they had been excluded by southern tribes from its oil, gold and diamond wealth. But their 10 months in power, marked by murder, looting and extortion, sparked a sectarian backlash in which Christian militias are driving Muslims from the south.
The news conference was held in the VIP lounge of Bangui's main airport. EU peacekeepers took charge of security at the airport on Wednesday in their first major operation to try to end the bloodshed.
Their presence has not stopped violence in the city, including the killing of a Muslim man on Wednesday whose body was decapitated and mutilated.
Thousands of civilians have taken refuge beside the airport and almost all the capital's Muslims have fled the city.
The EU launched its force at the start 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 to 1,000 soldiers in June, the EU said.
Countries including France, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Portugal and Spain have pledged soldiers or logistics. The United Nations has approved a 12,000-strong peacekeeping mission that will take over from an African force in the country from mid-September.
Persistent violence has raised costs for a parallel political transition period to 713 billion CFA francs ($1.5 billion) from an initial estimate of 490 billion CFA francs, Prime Minister Andre Nzapayeke said on Friday.
Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza in January named Nzapayeke, a former official of the African Development Bank, as prime minister, in a move towards restoring order.
($1 = 473.0860 CFA Francs)
(Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)