Hollande warns against partition of C.Africa

Stéphane JOURDAIN, Sabine WIBAUX

French President Francois Hollande warned against the partition of the Central African Republic as he visited Bangui Friday, nearly three months into a tough military mission to stop religious bloodshed.

Hollande visited some of the 2,000 French troops deployed in the country and met the force's top commander, General Francisco Soriano, at France's main Bangui airport base.

One aim of the military intervention is "to avoid at any price the partition of the country", Hollande said during the visit, his second since Operation Sangaris was launched on December 5.

As he tried to rally international support for a military operation last year, Hollande had warned France's former colony was on the brink of becoming a Somalia-style "failed state".

On Friday, with foreign backing still tepid for France's intervention, Hollande admitted that the new authorities in Bangui faced the task of building a state almost from scratch.

"That should start with paying civil servants their salaries," he said before meeting interim President Catherine Samba Panza.

He later came out of the meeting saying that funds from the regional grouping would ensure that salaries are paid soon.

Hollande then flew out after a visit that lasted seven hours.

Rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka group seized power in a coup nearly a year ago but some went rogue and Christian-dominated vigilantes formed in response to a campaign of abuses.

Michel Djotodia, the Seleka leader who became the country's first Muslim leader, was forced to quit in January but the "anti-balaka" self-defence groups have in turn escaped the control of the authorities and are continuing to commit atrocities.

The scope of the violence -- which included several gruesome public lynchings -- has forced France to change the timeline of its operation.

"Francois Hollande thought that the mission of the Sangaris troops would be over in a few months. A mistake," the Bangui daily Le Quotidien said on Friday.

His visit caps a week that saw 400 extra troops deployed and French parliament extend Sangaris' mandate despite concerns Hollande could get bogged down in a war with little prospect of a clear-cut success.

As Muslim civilians flee Central Africa, the ex-Seleka rebels have taken to the east of the country raising fears -- voiced by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon -- that the country could end up being split.

Hollande admitted in a speech to the French troops that while "considerable progress has been made... there is still a lot to do."

On Wednesday, Samba Panza urged French troops and the 6,000 African Union peacekeepers backing them to make full use of their UN mandate to "wipe out these unchecked elements that poison our lives".

Soriano replied in an interview to AFP on Thursday that France was already doing a lot and urged the Central African forces to start doing their share.

Hollande visited the landlocked nation for the first time in early December, days after French troops poured into the country to cheers from villagers.

Today, there is mounting hostility towards the French as the violence has escalated, sparking warnings by top aid officials that ethnic cleansing was under way, including in remote parts of the country.

"No need to come, Mr Hollande, we're already dead," said one Muslim woman in a Bangui street.

Nearly a quarter of the 4.6-million population has been displaced since the start of the conflict. Some 400,000 residents of the capital -- half its population -- have fled their homes for makeshift camps.

Relief organisations have warned that the flight of Muslims -- who controlled a large share of trade and farming -- risked exacerbating a major food crisis in what was already one of the world's poorest countries before the conflict.

A top UN official said the world should do more to prevent a bloodbath.

"It reminds me of Srebrenica," said Philippe Leclerc of the UN refugee agency, referring to the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by ethnic Serb forces in 1995 during the Bosnian war.

"An ethnic-religious cleansing is going on, targeting Muslims," he said.

The European Union has pledged to contribute between 800 to 1,000 troops to the international effort in the CAR.

Paris is urging the United Nations to expedite plans to take over the lead role in peacekeeping efforts, as it has done in the restive Democratic Republic of Congo.

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