Voice of America (Washington, DC)

Central African Republic: France Could Face Long Intervention in CAR

Photo: Voxcom/IRIN
Some of the LRA soldiers sit outside, Sudan, April 2007.

Paris — France's President Francois Hollande has vowed to stay the course in the Central African Republic, where French forces deployed to curb the country's escalating violence have sustained their first casualties. After Mali, CAR marks Paris' second military intervention in Africa this year. It may also prove more complex and lengthy than expected.

During a brief visit to the Central African Republic Tuesday evening, French President Francois Hollande said France's aim of disarming warring groups and restoring stability is essential to avoid more bloodshed.

"The mission is the same," Hollande said. "France knew it would be dangerous, but it is necessary to avoid carnage."

The president spoke hours after French forces sustained their first two fatalities since beginning their operation in CAR.

Mali intervention

The killings bookend a year that began with France's 4,000-strong military intervention in another former French colony - Mali - to drive out Islamist militants who had taken over the north.

The 1,600 French soldiers in the CAR are far fewer than those intervening in Mali, and French authorities have said this latest operation will only last about six months.

But analysts like African specialist Roland Marchal, of the Paris-based National Centre for Scientific Research, are skeptical.

"It's an illusion - as it was an illusion in Mali to declare the war was over, that French soldiers will be back home soon... We have more than 2,000 soldiers [still in Mali] when Francois Hollande promised that only 1,000 would be there by the end of the year," he said.

French troops killed 19 Islamists in northern Mali earlier this week, underscoring the reality that fighting there has not ended. French authorities say about 1,000 French troops will remain there in the coming months.

In the CAR, where this year's crisis has displaced about 500,000 people, the country's dense forests make military operations difficult. And considering the CAR's history of instability, securing peace and state authority will be challenging.

Marchal also believes that it may take longer than six months to hand over operations to a beefed-up African force.

"It's basically [that] the African force will need quite some time to get ready in Bangui as well as in the countryside. And because the funding is actually quite minimal," he said.

France has intervened in the CAR before, but Hollande has vowed a new French relationship with Africa as a whole, based on partnership and humanitarian concerns.

Reaction in France

At home, much of the opposition backs the operation, including Christian Jacob, who heads the conservative UMP party in the National Assembly. In a radio interview Wednesday, Jacob said the CAR military operation is essential, given the country's strategic location in the heart of Africa.

But Jacob said France is largely "isolated" in its military mission. France can only succeed, he says, if it works alongside other partners and rapidly hands over the operation to an international force.

Unlike the strong popular support for France's Mali operation, polls show many French today have mixed feelings about this latest one.

But Marchal says the intervention is unlikely to affect the president ratings, which ultimately will be determined by his domestic policies, and not his foreign ones.

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