LARISSA, Greece (AP) — The European Union expects to have more than 800 troops on the ground in the Central African Republic by mid-June, where they will secure parts of the capital before handing over to a U.N. force later this year, the force's operation commander said Tuesday.
The six-month deployment comes amid mounting concern that existing French and African peacekeepers need more help to secure the near-anarchic country before the U.N. force is deployed in September.
The EU force, known as EUFOR, has 235 troops in Central African Republic's capital of Bangui, where they are securing the airport and a nearby area intended to house the remaining troops when they arrive, Maj. Gen. Philippe Ponties said at the force's operation headquarters in the central Greek town of Larissa. Greece is hosting the operation headquarters for the multinational force of 17 countries.
Central African Republic has been gripped by vicious sectarian violence for months, leaving thousands dead and forcing nearly 1 million people to flee their homes.
An alliance of Muslim rebel groups known as the Seleka overthrew President Francois Bozize in March 2013. They quickly became despised by Christians in Bangui after Muslim fighters went on looting sprees, raping and killing civilians. An armed Christian movement known as the anti-Balaka, aided by Bozize loyalists, began retaliating several months later, sparking sectarian bloodshed.
News of the boosted EU force came the same day France's presidency announced that a 26-year-old French photojournalist who had spent months documenting the deadly conflict was killed after being caught in fighting. The U.N. Security Council as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists also called for an immediate investigation into the death of Camille Lepage, a freelance photographer whose work was published in major French and American newspapers.
The European force will concentrate on Bangui airport and two districts of the capital — five and three — where tension remains highest.
"The idea is that we will manage to achieve this minimum level of security that will allow the population to return, to allow the humanitarian workers to put into action the projects they want to ... and create (the conditions for) the return of the refugees," Ponties said, adding that this would free up the French and African Union troops to operate across a broader area.
Tens of thousands of people are still sheltering near Bangui airport in often desperate conditions, although Ponties said the number had fallen in recent weeks from about 80,000 to about 50-60,000 as security increased.
"I can say that the situation has improved," said the officer, who was in the country last week for the first time in about two months. "The comparison was quite striking and rather positive."
Ponties noted schools and courts had reopened and commerce had returned to Bangui.
"But I'm not telling you that the situation has been resolved," he cautioned. "Violence is still very present in the city."
In Washington, President Barack Obama ordered sanctions against five people tied to sectarian violence. He also declared a national emergency and said a breakdown of law and order, widespread atrocities and forced use of child soldiers threatens security not only in the Central African Republican, but also in neighboring African nations.
The United Nations has previously sanctioned three of the individuals sanctioned by the U.S., including Bozize. The U.S. sanctions target both Muslim rebels and members of a rival Christian movement — two sides of a brutal conflict that has confounded the international community.