By John Irish
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - France's foreign minister called on Wednesday for the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution next month to boost U.N. operations in the Central African Republic, which he said risked becoming a new Somalia if it did not get immediate support.
The landlocked, mineral-rich Central African Republic, or CAR, has slipped into chaos since northern Seleka rebels seized the capital, Bangui, and ousted President Francois Bozize in March. U.N. officials and rights groups say both sides may have committed war crimes.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius co-hosted a meeting with the European Union and U.N. humanitarian affairs officials on Wednesday in an effort to raise awareness for a crisis that has struggled to galvanize international interest, shadowed by other conflicts such as the Syrian civil war.
"CAR has become a lawless state and in a lawless state, the exactions increase and without any action it can become the refuge of all terrorists," Fabius told reporters, having earlier told delegates that radical Islamist groups were already operating in the country.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told the meeting on the Central African Republic that the United States was "deeply alarmed" by the prospect of the country becoming a safe haven for violent extremists.
"The devastating events in Kenya the last few days only underscore how terrorist groups and other extremists take advantage of lawless or ungoverned spaces," said Power, referring to the deadly attack on a Nairobi shopping mall on Saturday claimed by Somali Islamist militants.
She said the situation in the Central African Republic "constitutes a terrible human tragedy and a threat to international peace and security, and that merits the full and immediate prioritization and attention of the international community at the highest levels."
The country's former colonial power, France - which intervened earlier this year to oust Islamist rebels from another one of its former colonies, Mali - has been reluctant to get directly involved in the crisis. It has urged African nations and the African Union to do their utmost to resolve the crisis among themselves.
But while the African Union plans to deploy a 3,600-strong peacekeeping mission - known as MISCA - in the country, incorporating a regional force of 1,100 soldiers already on the ground, it is unlikely to be operational before 2014.
The African Union has asked financial, logistical and technical support from the United Nations, and senior U.N. officials recommended last month that the U.N. Security Council approve this request.
'TOMORROW WILL BE TOO LATE'
France plans to draft a resolution to put to the Security Council in October to increase support for the U.N. Integrated Peacebuilding Office, or BINUCA, in the Central African Republic, allowing it to go beyond Bangui, providing it with rights observers and asking U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report on how to move forward.
Paris then wants a second resolution to give U.N. backing to the African Union force and ultimately would like the African mission to be turned into a U.N. peacekeeping force.
It was unclear how quickly a deal could be reached on a first resolution because French diplomats said some Security Council members were hesitant to move forward because of questions on financing and responsibility for the mission.
"I think that the large majority of the Security Council are in favor, but the modalities still need to be explained," Fabius said, adding financing could be raised through donations.
Power said the United States strongly favored the deployment of the African Union peacekeeping force and was "exploring ways to furnish bilateral technical and financial aid." She said Washington also supported boosting BINUCA.
"It is both vital and urgent that other states join in backing this effort, whether with money or troop contributions to the AU mission," she told the meeting, according to a transcript of her remarks.
France has a small force in Bangui securing the airport and its local interests. French diplomatic sources have said Paris would be ready to provide logistical support and increase its troop numbers to 700 to 750 men if needed.
Michel Djotodia, who swept to power at the head of the rebellion, was officially sworn in as the country's president last month, but he has failed to contain waves of looting and killing by gunmen.
CAR is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium, but decades of instability and the spillover from conflicts in its larger neighbors have left the country's 4.5 million people mired in cycles of crises.
"It is now more important than ever to react because each day that passes endangers the country even more," CAR Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye said. "We have to act now because tomorrow will be too late."
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Peter Cooney)