BANGUI – Two French soldiers were killed in the Central African Republic, officials said Tuesday, on the second day of an operation to disarm fighters sowing sectarian violence in the country.
The deaths come as the U.N.-mandated military operation is being expanded with U.S. help.
The two paratroopers were fatally wounded while conducting a night patrol late Monday in the capital Bangui, French parliamentary speaker Claude Bartolone said.
They were the first deaths suffered by French troops since they entered the African nation, an unstable former colony, last week to quell an upsurge in violence.
Although 1,600 French soldiers have been deployed, mostly to Bangui and mostly — until now — to little resistance, lawlessness reigns beyond their positions.
“They lost their lives to save many others,” French President Francois Hollande said in a statement expressing his “sadness” and “profound respect” over the soldiers’ deaths.
He added that he had “full confidence in the French forces committed — alongside African forces — to restoring security in the Central African Republic, to protecting the people and guaranteeing access to humanitarian aid.”
Hollande was to visit the Central African Republic late Tuesday, after attending a memorial service with world leaders in South Africa honoring Nelson Mandela.
Among the leaders gathered in Soweto will be U.S. President Barack Obama, who on Monday made an appeal to the Central African Republic for calm and for its transitional government “to arrest those who are committing crimes.”
The U.S. also said its military would provide C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft to fly African Union peacekeeping troops from Burundi to the Central African Republic to aid the French-led effort to restore security.
The reinforcements will add to 2,500 African Union peacekeeping troops already in the Central African Republic.
The French forces had deployed in the wake of days of horrendous fighting in Bangui in which nearly 400 people were killed. The stench of dead bodies still permeates some areas of the capital.
Most of the clashes were between Christian and Muslim militias armed with guns and machetes.
The French military had said Monday that Bangui was relatively calm after the start of operations to disarm fighters, with troops conducting vehicle and house searches for weapons.
French troops briefly exchanged gunfire with armed men near Bangui’s airport, but no casualties were reported in that encounter.
“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,” she said, referring to a former rebel group that still sows terror.
The country has been mired in chaos since a March coup in which Seleka, a mostly Muslim rebel group, seized power and toppled President Francois Bozize. A former Seleka leader, Michel Djotodia, took over as interim president.
Although Djotodia formally disbanded Seleka, rogue ex-rebels continued to roam towns and villages, pillaging and spreading violence. The soaring confrontation with militias led some U.N. officials to warn of a possible genocide.
With the arrival of the French, many of the Seleka fighters have regrouped in Camp Beal in the center of Bangui, a facility was assigned to them by the French forces.
The military intervention has prompted some criticism in France at a difficult time for the French economy.
Hollande early this year had sent troops to another troubled African nation, Mali, to stop Islamists and Tuareg rebels from advancing on the capital Bamako.
But Foreign Minister Laurent 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 told France Inter radio.
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 defence ministry figures.
The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF told AFP in Bangui that nearly 480,000 people — mostly women and children — had been displaced since the March coup.