Hundreds in Central African Rep. flee to safety

December 6, 2013
View photos
Shrouded bodies lay in a mosque in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday Dec. 5 2013 following a day-long gun battle between Seleka soldiers and Christian militias. Over 40 bodies, civilian and some military, have been brought for funeral preparations. Gunfire and mortar rounds erupted in the town, leaving scores dead and wounded. To try to put an end to sectarian violence, the UN security council passed a motion allowing French troops to deploy in the country in order to protect civilians and insure security by all necessary means. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Hundreds of people crowded into a field Friday outside Central African Republic's main airport, hoping that French soldiers would protect them after a spasm of bloodshed in the lawless capital left more than 100 people dead.

With the capital of Bangui hovering at the edge of anarchy, French military reinforcements — including fighter jets, helicopters, parachutists and armored vehicles — rumbled their way into one of the world's poorest countries.

Streets in the city were empty except for military vehicles and the trucks favored by rebel forces who now claim control of the government. Nine unclaimed bodies sprawled in front of the parliament building on Friday — local Red Cross workers didn't dare retrieve them or other bodies left to decay outside.

Despite the cheers that went up when jet engines roared overhead, France insisted it was going only reluctantly into Central African Republic and with limited aims for an expected force of 1,200.

"You have to secure, you have to disarm," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Radio France Internationale. "You have to ensure that the vandals, the bandits, the militias know they can't use the streets of Bangui for their battles."

The British government was flying in military equipment Friday to Central African Republic on a C-17 plane to help with France's intervention.

There was no repeat of the clashes that left more than 100 people dead in Bangui on Thursday when Christian militias raided Muslim neighborhoods, but it remained an open question how France can achieve even its limited goals in the six months allotted to the mission.

"There's a big gap between the vision France has of itself as a global power and as a power that can intervene," said Aline Leboeuf, a security and development specialist at the French Institute for International Relations.

The real question, she added, is: "Can you intervene in the right way and when do you leave?"

Since thousands of armed Muslim rebels invaded Bangui in March, the city remains awash in weapons. Recent attempts at disarmament have yielded little.

Since 2011, France has intervened in four African countries, in Ivory Coast, on a joint mission in Libya, in Mali and now in Central African Republic.

"We're appreciative of France, but we know that 50 years after our independences, France is again required to come in as a fireman to save us — it's not right," said Alpha Conde, president of Guinea. "It's a humiliation for Africa that 50 years afterward, we are not at all able to manage our problems ourselves."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius repeated his government's desire for a robust African force to intervene in what he called "a certain number of similar situations."

"It's not up to France to intervene each time," he said.

Leboeuf predicted that within a decade France would no longer be able to intervene even if it wanted to.

"France doesn't own enough planes to transport its own people," she said, noting that France had to rely on some transport aircraft furnished by partners to get into place in Mali earlier this year.

In January, France sent in 5,000 troops to Mali to quash al-Qaida and other radicals in the north who were seen as a terrorist threat to countries around the region. That dwarfs the mission in Central African Republic, where Muslim rebels run rampant after toppling the president in March, fighting against Christian militias who back the ousted leader.

"Thanks to France and the United Nations who want to save the Central Africans, soon the Seleka attacks on civilians will stop. We have had enough of Seleka killing, raping and stealing," said Abel Nguerefara, who lives on the outskirts of Bangui.

Rebel leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia appealed for calm, even as his residence and that of the prime minister were looted and vandalized by the fighters Thursday. He announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew in hopes of preventing retaliatory violence against Christians from Muslims.

In a speech broadcast Thursday in the Sango language and a television interview in French, Djotodia called on people to realize French forces were not in Central African Republic to take sides in an increasingly sectarian conflict.

Scores died in Thursday's attack, including 48 people whose bodies were laid out at a mosque in a northern suburb of Bangui. The charity group Doctors Without Borders said another 50 deaths had been confirmed at its hospitals, bringing the toll to 98. And at least 12 bodies were unclaimed on Friday, including those outside parliament.

France's military, which controls Bangui airport, said about 2,000 Central Africans took refuge there Thursday. Hundreds remained on Friday, refusing to budge from what many consider the only safe place in the city.

Djotodia, the country's current ruler, who is Muslim, unified rebel groups in the country's mostly Muslim north, where resentment of the federal government and a sense of disenfranchisement has been rife for years. Once those rebels — known as Seleka, the local word for coalition — were unleashed upon the capital, he wielded very little control over the mix of bush fighters, child soldiers and foreign mercenaries he had recruited along the way.

Supporters of the ousted president formed self-defense militias such as those behind Thursday's attack.


Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley contributed from Paris.