BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Thursday for the rapid deployment of at least 3,000 additional troops and police to conflict-wracked Central African Republic to prevent further religious killings that have forced almost one million people to flee their homes and are partitioning the country into Muslim and Christian areas.
That would bring the international forces in the country to more than 11,000. Ban's call followed an appeal for more troops by U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos at the end of a three-day visit to the country earlier Thursday.
She told reporters she and her colleagues "were shocked by what we saw" in the remote town of Bossangoa, which has been at the epicenter of the fighting between the country's Muslim minority and the nation's Christian majority. She said tensions between communities are high and people fear for their lives.
Ban paid tribute to the nearly 6,000 African Union peacekeepers and 1,600 French troops in the country, but told the U.N. Security Council that the requirements to restore security to the lawless country "far exceed" their capabilities and the 500 troops promised by the European Union.
The secretary-general said he will soon be recommending a U.N. peacekeeping operation with "a robust mandate" to take over peacekeeping duties in the country. But the U.N. deployment will take months and "the people of Central African Republic don't have months to wait," he said.
Ban therefore called for reinforcement of the AU and French troops with additional deployments of at least 3,000 more troops and police "in the coming days and weeks," equipped with aircraft to operate wherever required.
He said French President Francois Hollande has pledged an additional 400 troops, the EU has said it will double its contingent to 1,000, and the AU will propose an expansion of its force. But Ban said more troops and police are needed urgently "and the wider international community must share the burden." U.N. officials say they are privately hoping that European countries will provide even more troops and police.
The secretary-general called for "a coordinated command" for the AU, French and EU contingents that would focus on containing the violence, protecting civilians, providing security to deliver humanitarian aid to over 2.5 million people — more than half the 4.6 million population — and prepare for the handover to a U.N. peacekeeping force "as soon as possible."
He also urged that African troops joining the force be provided with logistical and financial support, estimating this would cost $38 million for six months. Central African Republic, long one of the world's poorest and most unstable countries, plunged deeper into chaos nearly a year ago when the Muslim rebels from the north invaded the capital and overthrew the president of a decade. The rebels pillaged neighborhoods, raping and killing people with impunity for months, giving rise to the Christian militia. Those fighters attempted a coup in early December, and violence between the two communities exploded in the days that followed.
The president installed by the Muslim rebels has since gone into exile, and a nascent civilian government is attempting to restore order. The U.N. chief painted a grim picture of the country, saying "it is a calamity with a strong claim on the conscience of humankind."
"Innocent civilians are being killed in large numbers," Ban said. "They are being killed purposefully, targeted for their religious beliefs, for their community affiliation — for who they are." Muslims have been especially targeted, he said, but former Seleka rebels, who overthrew the government in March 2013, ushering in months of violence against the Christian majority, continue to attack Christians as well.
"Almost one million people have been displaced, with many homes burned to the ground with the purpose of preventing their return," Ban said. "A creeping de facto partition of the country is setting in, with Muslims in one part and Christians in another."
The secretary-general warned that "this separation is laying the seeds of conflict and instability for years, maybe generations, to come." Many here have called for an official U.N. peacekeeping mission, which would be better funded and equipped. France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said Thursday it would likely take five or six months to deploy.
Critics say that the international peacekeeping mission has failed to sufficiently protect civilians in many remote areas outside the capital. In other cases, Burundian peacekeepers stood by as a group of soldiers brutally stomped and stabbed to death a man they accused of being a rebel. The man's corpse was later dragged through the streets, dismembered and set on fire.
Amid such violence against the country's Muslims, the world's largest bloc of Islamic countries agreed Thursday to send a high-level fact-finding mission to Central African Republic and to appoint a special representative to coordinate efforts with the AU and the U.N.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation made the decision in an emergency meeting at the body's headquarters in Saudi Arabia and said it would "urgently dispatch" its high-level mission to the country to visit the capital to explore the situation, express solidarity with Muslims and to contribute to any peace talks.
"It has become imperative for a collective and timely engagement of the entire international community to help the new authorities restore order and stabilize the country because of the implications of the crisis on the peace, security and stability of the wider region and even beyond," said OIC Secretary-General Iyad Ameen Madani.
Guinea's Foreign Minister, Lounceny Fall, will head the organization's delegation. The body of 57 Muslim-majority member states also called on member states and others to step up aid to people in need. Ban also appealed for financial support to help the government "establish a minimum capacity to function."
The U.N. refugee agency says it will airlift aid in the coming week that will cater to 20,000 people.
Lederer reported from the United Nations. Associated Press reporter Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.
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