JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- French officials said Tuesday that they would deploy troops to the Central African Republic amid reports of violent chaos and warnings that the country could be sliding toward a sectarian civil war.
The French force would support African peacekeepers and wait for a United Nations resolution authorizing the deployment, expected next week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French radio. Fabius last week warned that the country was on the verge of genocide.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French radio Tuesday that the force would number about 1,000, but it was not clear whether the figure includes about 400 troops that France already has in the country's capital, Bangui. [Link in French]
The French announcement came after a report Monday by New York-based Human Rights Watch that detailed possible war crimes by predominantly Muslim rebels, many from neighboring Chad and Sudan, who overthrew President Francois Bozize earlier this year. Rebel leader Michel Djotodia declared himself president and integrated the Seleka rebels into the army.
About 400,000 people have been displaced by fighting, according to U.N. estimates.
Rights groups accuse the rebels of atrocities, including killings, rapes, recruiting children to fight and burning down villages. With the situation increasingly tense between the country's Christians and Muslims, many fear a descent into a sectarian civil war without a stronger U.N. peacekeeping force.
French officials warned Tuesday that the chaos in the Central African Republic had the potential to destabilize the region.
The French troop announcement came after U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told the Security Council Monday that swift international action was required to stem a rapidly deteriorating crisis.
“The population is enduring suffering beyond imagination," he said. "As we see far too often, women and children are bearing the brunt. Human rights violations are mounting. The use of child soldiers is rising. Sexual violence is growing. There are widespread reports of looting, illegal checkpoints, extortion, illegal arrests and detentions, torture and summary executions."
Eliasson said once-peaceful relations between Christians and Muslims were spiraling out of control, as militias manipulated religious sentiments, fueling sectarian violence.
“Harmony among communities has been replaced by horror,” he said. “The CAR is becoming a breeding ground for extremists and armed groups in a region that is already suffering from conflict and instability."
“If this situation is left to fester, it may degenerate into a religious and ethnic conflict with longstanding consequences, a relentless civil war that could easily spill over into neighboring countries,” Eliasson warned.
About 2,500 African peacekeepers have been deployed in the country by the regional body known as the Economic Community of Central African States. The African Union will take charge of the force next month, boosting the force to about 3,600.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday spelled out options for United Nations action, including converting the African Union force into a U.N. peacekeeping operation and boosting its numbers, should the crisis worsen.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International said Monday that executions, rape and other violence were being perpetrated daily by members of the security forces and armed groups.
"The crisis is spinning out of control," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International secretary-general. "People are dying in the Central African Republic as we speak, and action is needed as a matter of utmost urgency. There is no time to delay."
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