BANGUI – Most armed groups have left the streets of the Central African Republic’s capital, the French army said after an operation to quell sectarian violence, as U.S. President Barack Obama called for the arrests of those responsible.
Obama, in a recorded message to all the communities of the Central African Republic on Monday, appealed for calm and urged the transitional government “to arrest those who are committing crimes.”
The U.S. said its military will help fly African Union peacekeeping troops to the Central African Republic as part of the French-led effort to restore security there.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in Qatar on a tour of the region, has ordered American forces “to begin transporting forces from Burundi to the Central African Republic, in coordination with France,” his spokesman said.
Bangui was relatively calm after days of fighting involving former Seleka rebels in which nearly 400 people were killed, although the stench of corpses still permeated some areas of the capital.
“There are no longer armed groups patrolling the city,” French military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said in Paris after the operation to disarm the rebels.
The fighters have regrouped in Camp Beal in the center of Bangui, a camp that was assigned to them by the French forces.
France has deployed 1,600 soldiers to the notoriously unstable majority-Christian country, which was plunged into chaos when the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in a March coup.
What started as rebel looting of villages and towns has degenerated into attacks between Muslim and Christian militias with some U.N. officials warning of a possible genocide.
The French troops, part of a U.N.-mandated effort to quell the violence, have encountered little opposition since they began deploying last week.
On Monday they briefly exchanged gunfire with armed men near Bangui’s airport, but no casualties were reported.
French soldiers seized a number of weapons and disarmed and briefly detained at least 13 men. But many more weapons are believed to have been stashed away.
“We have started to go out because the French are here,” said Arlette Papaye, a local tradeswoman.
“We had remained holed up in our homes and cellars. We are hungry. The French must chase out the Seleka.”
The country’s interim president, Michel Djotodia, a former Seleka rebel leader, on Monday urged his countrymen to cooperate with the French forces who have come to reinforce a 2,500-strong African Union peacekeeping mission.
But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned the disarmament would not be easy.
Fabius said Djotodia had appealed to his former fighters to give up their arms, but while some remain loyal to him, many have gone rogue and imposed a reign of terror in the countryside.
“If this does not yield sufficient results, force will be employed,” Fabius warned.
French President Francois Hollande, who sent troops into the west African nation of Mali earlier this year to stop Islamists and Tuareg rebels from advancing on the capital, Bamako, said Paris cannot turn a blind eye to the massacres perpetrated in the Central African Republic.
The military intervention has prompted criticism at home in France at a difficult time for the French economy.
But Fabius said the cost of the deployment was “minimal” as the French troops were drawn from bases in other African countries.
“If we did not intervene quickly it would have cost much more,” he said.
France has also been anxious to avoid charges of meddling in its former African colony for political or economic reasons.
It has repeatedly emphasized it is ultimately Africa’s responsibility to tackle the various crises on the continent.
France has more than 5,300 troops stationed in a string of bases across western and central Africa, according to defense ministry figures.