BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC – French soldiers patrolled the Central African Republic’s capital on Friday after the United Nations gave the green light for foreign troops to restore security following a new bloodbath that left dozens of bodies strewn in the streets.
Two warplanes overflew Bangui, but otherwise an eerie quiet reigned in the capital as the French operation got under way, a day after more than 120 people were killed in the city — many clubbed or hacked to death in violence that erupted amid international warnings that the country risked sectarian massacres.
The CAR has descended into chaos since a motley coalition of rebel fighters known as Seleka overthrew the government in March and installed their own chief, Michel Djotodia, as president — the first Muslim leader of the majority Christian country.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the goal of the mission, which got the unanimous blessing of the 15-member U.N. Security Council on Thursday, was to provide “a minimum of security to allow for a humanitarian intervention to be put in place.”
The operation in the former French colony will include “securing roads and main routes to allow people to be able to at least go to the hospital,” he said.
“France is there for a short time,” he told French radio RFI. President Francois Hollande’s government has previously said it expects the operation to last four to six months.
“Bangui is effectively in shutdown,” said Christian Mukosa, Amnesty International’s CAR expert who is currently in the city, where Djotodia has extended a curfew by four hours from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“Doctors are telling us that they are desperate to get to the hospitals to reach people in need of life-saving surgery, but they cannot do so, due to the insecurity that has swept the city,” Mukosa said in a statement.
France has begun deploying an additional 600 troops, doubling the force it already had in and around the capital of a nation prone to chronic instability and violence.
French light trucks and armored vehicles patrolled Bangui’s streets, otherwise deserted on a cloudy, rainy day. Troops from African military force MISCA, which the French mission is meant to bolster, where also posted around the city.
Residents in several neighborhoods spoke of hearing sporadic gunfire from automatic weapons overnight.
“We don’t know why they were firing,” a resident of the Ben Zvi neighbourhood said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties after a tense night under curfew.
The French defence minister said a company — about 150 soldiers in the French army — had arrived Thursday night and that a detachment of helicopters would arrive Friday.
Ivory Coast, another former French colony, welcomed the French operation.
“A people is in danger. I think it even took too long,” Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara told French newspaper Le Figaro.
“When there’s an emergency, it’s good for France to intervene. But afterwards, it’s up to African countries to take charge of their own security, with U.N. help.”
After a night of brutal Christian-Muslim fighting Wednesday and early Thursday, reporters in Bangui counted 54 corpses gathered in a mosque in the PK5 area of the capital. Another 25 bodies lined surrounding streets.
Local men outside the mosque voiced fury over the previous night’s events while brandishing machetes.
“They knew these were Muslim houses,” one said. Another added: “It’s a war they want.”
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported at least 50 dead and scores more injured in one hospital alone as a result of the clashes. It has not yet been possible to establish a definitive death toll.