By Marine Pennetier
BANGUI (Reuters) - French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday that France would be ready to intervene in Central African Republic if necessary, despite ending its peacekeeping mission in its former colony.
France launched Operation Sangaris in December 2013 to try to end a cycle of tit-for-tat killing that began when mainly Muslim Seleka fighters toppled the then-president, prompting reprisals by Christian anti-Balaka militias.
The French presence peaked at 2,000 but is due to fall below 300 by early next year with the remaining troops deployed as part of a European military training mission, to support U.N. drone operations or as a rapid reaction unit supporting the national army.
France's withdrawal has left security largely in the hands of MINUSCA, the 13,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission. But criticism of the force has mounted in recent weeks, with local people accusing the peacekeepers of not doing enough to protect them.
"France will not abandon CAR," Le Drian told Central African Republic's National Assembly during a visit to mark the official end of Operation Sangaris.
"We will retain an ability to intervene at very short notice thanks to our local forces and units from Operation Barkhane and other forces pre-positioned in Africa."
About 3,500 French troops are stationed in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso as part of Operation Barkhane in order to fight militancy in West Africa and the Sahel.
The National Assembly president, Abdoul Karim Meckassoua, expressed concern that the French troops' departure would exacerbate a deteriorating security climate.
The departure "is for us, let's be frank, a source of concern", Meckassoua told the assembly. "Worse, the announced departure of Sangaris seems to provoke the bellicose fervor of some people."
Last week, clashes between militia groups killed 25 people while exchanges of gunfire between U.N. peacekepers and armed men during a protest against the U.N. mission killed four civilians and injured 14 other people.
(Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Edward McAllister and Alison Williams)