UN officially takes over peacekeeping operations in C. Africa

AFP , Monday 15 Sep 2014

A new UN mission on Monday officially takes charge of peacekeeping operations in the Central African Republic, tasked with ending ethnic and religious bloodshed and helping to bring political stability.

During a ceremony due to start at the airport of the capital Bangui at 3:00 pm (1400 GMT), the task force known as MINUSCA will pick up the baton from the African MISCA force, backed by French and European troops.

"This transfer of authority represents the complete success of the MISCA mandate and the beginning of military and police action" in the poor, landlocked nation, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who urged rival sides "to stop the violence immediately" and enable a political transition to stable, democratic rule.

"Our mission can be summed up in a triptych: to protect the population, back the political process and contribute to the restoration of the authority of the state," said MINUSCA's chief, General Babacar Gaye of Senegal.

The country plunged into conflict after a coup in March last year by a mainly Muslim rebel alliance, the Seleka, which overthrew president Francois Bozize and made their own man, Michel Djotodia, head of state.

Influential foreign leaders last January forced Djotodia to step down because he proved incapable of preventing widespread atrocities by renegades from the Seleka, who installed a rule of terror though Djotodia had outlawed the movement.

Communities from the mainly Christian majority responded by setting up vigilante forces known as "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) to seek vengeance, mostly targeting Muslim civilians whom they accused of backing Seleka ex-rebels.

More than a quarter of the CAR population of 4.8 million has been displaced by the strife, while only one Muslim district remains in Bangui, since everybody else fled killings, rape and systematic looting by anti-balaka forces.

With the UN mission poised to move in, the US embassy in Bangui reopened its doors on Monday, after closing down late in 2012 for security reasons, a diplomatic source said. The new American ambassador, David Brown, has already been serving as senior advisor for the CAR since August last year.

The groundwork for MINUSCA -- the French acronym for United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic -- was laid down last April by UN Security Council Resolution 2149.

Initially the force will deploy 7,600 men, mostly drawn from MISCA ranks, and at full strength, the UN contingent will include 12,000 soldiers and police officers.

Their task will be a difficult, long-term one. Widespread violence that raised fears of genocide has ceased, but it has provoked a humanitarian disaster in a long-troubled country short on food, health care and key infrastructure.

The crisis follows a long line of coups, army mutinies, rebellions and civil disturbances that have ripped at the very fabric of society and plunged most citizens into deep poverty despite the country's agricultural potential and its mineral wealth.

"The state no longer exists in the country. We're up against a void," a Western diplomat said early in September. "People need to rethink everything, rebuild from scratch. And the Central Africans don't have the capacities for that, let's be clear."

"The economy fell apart even before the state," the International Crisis Group stated in a June report on the CAR. It charged that while in power, Seleka forces "asserted control of lucrative trafficking networks (gold, diamond and ivory)."

The think-tank argued that foreign intervention was always limited to "three important but insufficient elements": a military presence, humanitarian assistance and budgetary aid to prop up the administration. But what counts is "ending a cycle of predatory rule", the ICG proposed.

Many people in the CAR are tentatively staking their hopes on MINUSCA, partly because they have become used to repeated interventions during decades of misrule.

"They've tried everything to enable (the country) to undergo a nearly certain stabilisation," said Ange Abdoul, who works in a Bangui bank. "For me, there is always room for doubt" about what MINUSCA can do.

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