France said on Tuesday is was pinning its hopes on regional peace talks to halt violence in Central African Republic, a day after rebels and armed Muslim civilians launched a deadly grenade attack on a church compound.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking during a visit to the former French colony, said its interim president was politically “isolated” as foreign troops struggled to stop recurrent violence between Muslims and Christians.
“The situation remains extremely complex and very fragile,” Le Drian told RMC radio while visiting French troops stationed there after 10 were wounded in recent clashes.
Central African Republic is one of the world’s poorest countries despite its deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals, and borders some of the continent’s most unstable nations, including South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.
The latest violence stems back to the takeover of the majority Christian country last year by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group. Christian militia sprung up in response, saying they were defending their communities against Seleka attacks.
The rebel stepped down earlier this year under intense international pressure and an interim government took over.
“I met the president (Catherine Samba-Panza) last night. She has a lot of determination and goodwill, but is a little isolated,” said Le Drian.
He added there was a “ray” of hope after regional leaders agreed to bring the country’s main players to the negotiating table at the end of July in the Congo Republic capital Brazzaville to try and agree on a ceasefire and work on a political solution.
“The French government is putting a lot of hope on this conference, which should help reach a more pacified solution,” Le Drian said, adding that if the next few months went according to plan Paris would begin withdrawing troops by year-end.
The weak interim government has failed to stamp its authority on the country and violence continues despite the presence of about 6,000 African Union peacekeepers and 2,000 French soldiers. That mission is due to begin transferring to a 10,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force from September.
Paris had hoped for a relatively quick solution to the crisis after it intervened in December, but with violence worsening in the north of the country and French forces increasingly targeted there is little prospect of an early withdrawal or planned elections for early next year.
“The task for our forces is very difficult. They are trying to stop clashes between communities who have real hatred and others that are criminal gangs,” said the defence minister.
Fighters attacked a church compound where thousands of Christians were taking refuge in Bambari, 380 km (236 miles) northeast of the capital on Monday. A church official said many people had been killed, the latest in more than a year of clashed that have killed thousands and forced millions to flee.
Seven French soldiers were wounded in Bambari on Thursday, and three others were wounded in a grenade attack in Bangui a day later as they were helping Central African forces trying to arrest leaders of armed groups.