analysisBy Paul Melly
The deployment of French and African troops to the Central African Republic (CAR) got off to a smooth start and met with a warm welcome on the streets - even though last night two French troops died in a clash with militia fighters.
The intervention may have averted total collapse and offered the chance for a fresh beginning, but the challenges to be faced in rebuilding the country remain formidable.
Deploying a rapid intervention force in the way France has requires skill, resources and experience, but for a serious modern military power this is what professional high-tech armies are for.
Moreover, French forces know Africa well and have been discreetly training for their current mission for weeks.
But now the troops of Operation Sangaris are moving on to tackle a much more delicate challenge - disarming the militia fighters who have been terrorizing Central Africans for many weeks. Sustained progress is far from guaranteed.
The Séleka rebels who drove President François Bozizé from power in March are a blend of fighters from the CAR's mainly Muslim far north and foreigners, including many Chadian mercenaries and Sudanese janjaweed. It will not be easy to convince them to disarm and go home.
The 'anti-Balaka' Christian self-defence groups that have appeared over recent weeks - and committed their share of sectarian atrocities - are also unlikely to disband while Séleka is still perceived as a threat to communities across the south.
The transitional president, Michel Djotodia, installed in power by Séleka, has ordered former rebels to return to barracks, warning of tough measures against those who fail to comply. But his authority is uncertain at best.
Djotodia's inability to pay off the fighters he had recruited to depose Bozizé was one of the main factors that induced rebel warlords to run amok, murdering and looting communities across the country. His order disbanding Séleka was ignored.
This is the situation that confronts France's 1,600 troops and the 2,500-strong regional peace force. Brought under the African Union flag and rebadged as MISCA (Mission internationale de soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine), the latter is to be expanded to 6,000 troops.
The French and African forces patrolling Bangui have begun to disarm the Séleka fighters who until late last week roamed the streets of the capital with impunity. But they are well aware that many of the former rebels have simply hidden their weapons and sought to blend into the wider civilian population.
Hampered by a weak state
The task of disarming fighters and restoring security is all the more difficult because the state is so weak. The CAR's government is in no condition to provide the administrative functions, key services and socio-economic development measures that help rebuild stability in post-conflict countries.
Moreover, the country's health and poverty indicators were dire even before the crisis of the past nine months. At just 48 years, average adult life expectancy is the second lowest in the world. The incidence of malaria, HIV and child malnutrition is high.
The international peacekeeping effort will almost certainly be further beefed up in the near future. UN Security Council Resolution 2127, which authorized MISCA and the French intervention, requires UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to report back within three months.
Ban has already made clear that he hopes his report will trigger a Security Council decision to upgrade MISCA to full UN Blue Helmets status - a move that would put its funding on a more secure basis than the present voluntary trust fund.
However, it will be difficult to rebuild an effective administration and implement a development agenda in the CAR without the sort of effective government leadership that Djotodia has been unable to provide. That is why France is pushing for an acceleration of the political transition timetable endorsed by the African Union.
At present the timetable envisages elections in early 2015, which would leave the politically weak leadership of Djotodia and Nicolas Tiangaye, the transitional prime minister, in place right through the crucial year ahead.
France appears to hope the CAR could follow the example of Mali, where early post-crisis elections installed a politically strong new president - Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta - to lead the process of national rebuilding.
But Bangui is not Bamako and the nature of politics is different in the two countries. There are well-rooted multiparty democratic traditions in the CAR, and experienced potential heads of state who would have the moral legitimacy that Djotodia lacks.
Yet none is likely to command the near national consensus support that Keïta can claim. And a new president will inherit a state machine that is far more fragile than Mali's.
For the CAR, the road to peace and stability will be arduous.
Paul Melly is an Associate Fellow in the Africa Programme of Chatham House.