Bangui — Over the past few weeks, hundreds of people have been killed and more than 100,000 others forced to flee their homes in escalating violence in the Central African Republic.
The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA) has repeatedly come under scrutiny for its inability to protect civilians. Human rights activists claim that the 12,000-strong peacekeeping force hasn't effectively contained the violence by armed groups operating across the country. The mission also continues to face sexual exploitation and abuse accusations.
Al Jazeera spoke to Lieutenant General Balla Keita, force commander of the United Nations MINUSCA, about criticisms that the mission was unable to halt armed groups and failing to protect civilians.
Al Jazeera: Is MINUSCA fulfilling its mandate of protecting citizens in CAR?
General Keita: Walking around, you realise that something has improved. Bangui (the capital) has changed dramatically. Travelling to Bambari, it's the same. Kaga-Bandoro, it's the same.
We can say there has been progress.
But we all know that in some parts of the country people are really suffering and being killed by armed groups. There is progress in the major parts of the country, particularly the west and parts of the centre, the northeast.
But in the southern part of the centre and the southeast, the situation has deteriorated in the past two months because of the clash between armed groups and the direct attacks on civilians. There is improvement but we still have a lot to worry about.
Al Jazeera: There seems to be a split between a secure Bangui and a more lawless countryside. Would you agree with this portrayal?
General Keita: I wouldn't go that far because I've just mentioned a few towns. If you go into Bambari, it's almost the same feeling as in Bangui. People are working night and day in Bambari now. In Kaga-Bandoro it's almost the same. In the Western parts people are going about their day.
The issue is the countryside, and moving from one town to another freely without any concern of security is not possible. You have a lot of armed groups that are not controlled and bandits between the populations and are taking advantage of these security situations and civilians.
Al Jazeera: Why has MINUSCA not been able to halt the activities of armed groups in the country?
General Keita: We have achieved some form of control over them [but] the overall control of the armed groups is going to be very difficult to achieve.
The country is so large and the armed groups are everywhere.
MINUSCA came in to stabilise the situation and bring people together to negotiate.
The mandate was not to come and neutralise the armed groups. It was to protect the civilians and set conditions for a political process.
The government of transition tried to do that and did not achieve it, but we now managed to have elections.
It's now up to President Faustin-Archange Touadera to try and speed up that process. But if one of the groups started attacking the population, with our mandate to protect them, we have to deal directly with that armed group.
Al Jazeera: How would you react to criticism that you are merely protecting the government rather than civilians?
General Keita: When you look at it you realise it can't make sense.
In Bangui, we are at one fifth of our capabilities, the rest of the capabilities are elsewhere. Bangui is and will remain the centre of gravity of this mission.
This crisis is about taking the power and the power is here in Bangui. We have managed to elect a government so we must protect that government so they can try to run properly.
Al Jazeera: Civilians are still being killed and the government isn't able to protect them. Are we waiting for the government to move ahead and protect the civilians or is it MINUSCA who must do better?
General Keita: No, it's our job.
We are not shying away from it. The protection of civilians and the government lies with MINUSCA. We know this; it's our responsibility.
We have to secure the government because otherwise, people will take the power.
Al Jazeera: There have been major attacks in the last month or so in Bria, around Bambari, Kaga-Bandoro with thousands displaced and hundreds killed. How do you accept these events when they take place?
General Keita: We could have done better. But we also know that it's almost impossible for us to achieve what everyone expects us to do.
We cannot be everywhere.
These guys, their modus operandi is to [attack] when they know MINUSCA is not there.
So they'll target the civilians there.
When we get to know they are there we stop it. But some have already been killed or displaced.
That dynamic worries us and the international community. We don't have the capacity to be everywhere so we try to adjust the strategy and align it with the political process.
If they are having clashes you can't go in and neutralise them all. You try to put an end to the fighting because the clash between the armed groups is what harms the civilians.
The fighting in Bria is between the armed groups to control the economic activities and the mining areas and they do it inside the city. So what do we do? Before we can even put an end to the fighting the whole city is displaced.
Al Jazeera: Moving forward, what are you priority areas? Bambari is safer now, but armed groups have captured areas around it.
General Keita: My first priority is to stop the killings wherever it happens.
It is now happening throughout the southeast and it's become my main security challenge.
I have to make sure the killings stop there. But while I am doing it I have to keep two things in mind: that Bangui is the centre of gravity. We can never, ever be so weak in Bangui that the people who want to take the power can do it.
They are waiting for that time.
The second thing, Bambari has become the turning point in this mission. We have achieved something and the whole world now is joining us to make Bambari the example for the peace process and the future.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.