The UN Security Council has given the go-ahead for troops to be sent to Central African Republic (CAR) to protect a UN political mission in the virtually lawless country where a senior aid official said half the population needs help.
The landlocked, mineral-rich nation of 4,6 million people has slipped into chaos since northern Seleka rebels seized the capital, Bangui, and ousted President Francois Bozize in March. UN officials and rights groups say both sides may have committed war crimes.
“This has long been a forgotten crisis and now the situation with the breakdown in law and order and the takeover by armed groups means the situation in the country is quite chaotic,” said John Ging, director of operations for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“Over half of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance. But the number one issue now is protection and the atrocities that are being committed against the civilian population are indescribable.”
Ging, who recently spent three days in CAR, said armed groups are inciting Christian and Muslim communities against each other and instilling widespread fear. He said crimes committed include mutilation, rape and torture.
“We are very concerned about what is happening in terms of the attacks on communities and what that will then mean in terms of inter-communal tensions and the prospects for more violence,” he said.
CAR is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium, but decades of instability and the spill-over from conflicts in its larger neighbours have left the country mired in cycles of crises.
The 15-member Security Council adopted a resolution this month urging the world body to consider establishing a full-fledged peacekeeping force. It also asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for plans for a guard force to protect the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office, known as BINUCA.
The council on Tuesday approved a proposal by Ban to send 250 military personnel to Bangui and then increase the strength of the force to 560 troops so they can deploy to areas outside the capital where there is a UN presence.
Given the urgency of the situation, Ban suggested that as an interim measure the initial 250 troops could be temporarily redeployed from another UN peacekeeping operation. The guards would provide perimeter security and access control.
The African Union (AU) plans to deploy a 3 600-member peacekeeping mission in the country – known as MISCA. Incorporating a regional force of 1 100 soldiers already on the ground, it is unlikely to be operational before next year.
Some Western diplomats say the situation in CAR is too fragile to permit the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force in the foreseeable future.
France, which intervened this year to oust Islamist rebels from another of its former colonies, Mali, has been reluctant to become directly involved. It has urged African nations and the AU to do their utmost to resolve the crisis.
France has a small force in Bangui securing the airport and its local interests. French diplomatic sources have indicated France would be ready to provide logistical support and increase its troop numbers to between 700 and 1 200 if needed.
The Security Council will hold an informal meeting on Friday, organised by France and Rwanda, to discuss the human rights and humanitarian situation in CAR.