Jan. 20, 2014 Defense News (AFP)
BRUSSELS — The European Union agreed Monday to send hundreds of troops to the Central African Republic in a rare joint military mission aimed at ending months of sectarian violence.
Saying Europe was “deeply concerned by the extreme insecurity and instability” in the impoverished nation, EU foreign ministers gave “political approval” to the rapid deployment of a force expected to number between 400 and 600.
An EU-UN donor’s conference in Brussels meanwhile gathered $496 million (€365 million) in pledges this year for the country, where almost one million people, or 20 percent of the population, have been displaced by fighting.
As ministers discussed what will be the EU’s first major ground operation in six years, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned the country was in “a crisis of epic proportions” and urged the world “to pull CAR back from the brink of further atrocities.”
“We face a political and humanitarian emergency in the Central African Republic,” said Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. “We clearly need to do something.”
The military mission is to help establish a safe and secure environment around the capital, Bangui, where 1,000 people were reportedly killed last month alone in clashes between Christian and Muslim militias.
It will back up French and African forces and eventually hand over to African or UN peacekeepers after a four- to six-month period.
Britain, like Germany, has offered logistical support for the French operation but has repeatedly made clear it would not send troops.
New German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier praised France for dispatching 1,600 troops, saying: “We Europeans and neighbors should be grateful that France worked for avoiding worse incidents so far.”
Ireland’s top diplomat Eamon Gilmore said his country favored “an intervention with UN support.”
EU mission likely to protect airport
The EU “bridging force” is likely to be asked to protect Bangui’s airport, where about 120,000 people have fled in fear of the inter-communal violence.
Once a UN mandate has been obtained for the mission, which may be approved as early as Thursday in New York, EU planners hope to get troops on the ground by late February, diplomats said.
Command would be handed to France with headquarters in Greece.
“We cannot be more pleased,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. “Europe is going to come to the military support of the Central African Republic.”
For President Francois Hollande, under pressure at home, the decision will be welcome after he committed troops to France’s former colony and then sought EU support.
“An EU deployment now (will) offer Paris both some immediate operational benefits — freeing up French troops — and political relief,” said Richard Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“It would at least show that the EU has not deserted France completely in Africa,” Gowan said.
At a late December EU leaders summit, Hollande had pressed his peers for a gesture of solidarity even if they did not want to commit troops on the ground.
So far, only the small Baltic nation of Estonia has offered troops, saying 55 could arrive in CAR in February to back up French efforts which had helped prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
Poland, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Spain are the most likely to step up next, diplomatic sources said.
Along with the French, some 4,000 African troops are in CAR under a UN mandate, trying to end violence between Christian militias and ex-rebels who installed the country’s first Muslim leader in a coup in March.
Last week the UN’s humanitarian operations director warned the country risked descending into genocide.
The violence “has all the elements that we have seen elsewhere in places like Rwanda, Bosnia. The elements are there for a genocide, there is no question about that,” director John Ging said.
The mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza, was on Monday elected interim president by the transitional parliament, tasked with restoring peace to the country and organizing general elections by mid-2015.