UNITED NATIONS – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon raised the possibility Tuesday that the conflict-wracked Central African Republic could be divided as a result of sectarian brutality, and called for a robust international mission, including a possible U.N. peacekeeping force, to avoid mass atrocities.
Ban’s comments marked the first time the U.N. chief has raised the possibility of the impoverished country being divided into Christian and Muslim regions. He coupled it with a warning that the international response doesn’t yet match the gravity of the situation and a plea for global action in the face of escalating sectarian killings and widespread lawlessness.
Ban announced that he is sending Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Edmond Mulet to the country to consult with the African Union about potentially transforming the existing African force into a U.N. peacekeeping force. He also called on the European Union to accelerate deployment of its military operations, and said he had spoken to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, asking France to consider deploying additional troops.
France has sent 1,600 troops to its former colony to bolster nearly 6,000 peacekeepers from African nations working to stabilize the country, which has been in chaos since a March 2013 coup.
The EU mission, expected to comprise 500 to 600 troops, will be deployed to guard the airport in the capital, Bangui, where 100,000 people have taken refuge. French Ambassador Gerard Araud has said this will free up French troops to move beyond the airport and take up security operations in Bangui and beyond.
More than 1,000 people have been killed and nearly 1 million forced from their homes in the Central African Republic (CAR) since December, in violence that has pitted Christians and Muslims against each other.
Ban warned that the situation is worsening.
“Both Muslims and Christians have been murdered and forced to flee their homes,” the secretary-general said. “The sectarian brutality is changing the country’s demography. The de facto partition of the CAR is a distinct risk.”
He urged the international community to support the AU force and urged other countries to contribute troops as well to help stabilize the country.
“We cannot just continue to say ‘never again.’ This, we have said so many times,” Ban said. “We must act concertedly and now to avoid continued atrocities on a massive scale.”
U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Tuesday that additional troops are needed in CAR to address “the very complex security situation.” American military involvement has largely been limited to airlifting in Burundian and Rwandan peacekeepers.
The secretary-general is expected to report to the U.N. Security Council in late February or early March with recommendations for turning the AU force into a better equipped and financed U.N. peacekeeping operation. According to U.N. diplomats, the African Union wanted to remain in charge of peacekeeping efforts for a year, but it is likely to come under pressure to let the U.N. take over due to worsening conditions on the ground.
Ban cautioned that even if the change to a U.N. peacekeeping force “looks increasingly necessary, it would take time for it to happen.” Normally, it takes at least five or six months to get a U.N. peacekeeping force — in this case probably at least 10,000 troops — on the ground.
Activists in CAR have long called for a U.N. force, believing that it will be better equipped and include a police contingent that could help secure Bangui.
Stopping the violence will involve intervening in rapidly deteriorating mob situations and traveling into some of the most remote corners of Africa.
The sectarian nature of the conflict is an especially touchy subject.
Whether U.N. troops could do what the French — who are far more aggressive — have not been able to do in restoring law and order is also a question mark. Observers recall, for example, U.N. peacekeepers allowing M23 rebels to march into Goma, the main city in eastern Congo, in 2012.