France to wind down Central African mission after elections

DAKAR (Reuters) - France will resume withdrawing its troops from Central African Republic following elections intended to restore democratic rule following more than two years of inter-religious violence, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday. Paris sent soldiers to its former colony in late 2013 in an attempt to stem the bloodshed, which began after the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power earlier in the year provoking a backlash from Christian anti-balaka militias. Interim authorities announced a timetable on Tuesday for the long-delayed presidential and parliamentary polls, fixing the first round of voting for Dec. 27 and a second round, if needed, for Jan. 31. They will be preceded by a referendum on Dec. 13 on changes to the constitution, according to a government decree. France began withdrawing some of its troops, who numbered around 2,000 at the peak of the mission known as Sangaris, earlier this year. The country's U.N. mission, MINUSCA, has meanwhile struggled to restore and maintain order. Speaking on the sidelines of a security forum in Senegal, Le Drian told reporters that a recent surge in violence had forced France to put the withdrawal on hold. "We decided to stop the process of winding down Sangaris to allow our force to support MINUSCA during the electoral period. Then it will be up to the new authority to decide how to organise its own army," he said. Militia violence and inter-religious reprisal attacks have killed around 90 people in the capital Bangui since late September. French troops have been instrumental to containing the situation. Last month they helped halt a column of Seleka fighters that was advancing on Bangui. "Since a little more than a month ago, we have again seen an increase in violence which we think is due to the fact that the extreme groups on both sides realise that the democratic process is advancing," Le Drian said. Some analysts have warned that premature elections could do more harm than good. But the international community has nonetheless pressed for polls before the end of this year to replace the current interim authority, which has been plagued by internal bickering, with an elected government. A Western diplomat told Reuters on Tuesday that, while the mandate of the interim authorities is due to expire next month, a regional summit later this month was expected to renew it through February to cover the election period. (Reporting by Sebastien Lamba in Bangui and Emma Farge in Dakar; Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Makini Brice and Joe Bavier; Editing by John Stonestreet and Matthew Lewis)