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French-Backed Forces Try To Stem Bloodshed In CAR


French President Francois Hollande attended today's memorial service for Nelson Mandela. We're going to hear now about the next stop on his schedule. On his way home from South Africa, Hollande stopped in Central African Republic, or CAR. The former French colony has been descending into chaos since a coup in March. A French-backed African force is trying to re-establish order there, and two French soldiers were killed in fighting overnight. The U.S. is offering logistical support.

But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, some aid workers worry it's not enough.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: As a Humanitarian aid worker, Suad Jarbawi of Mercy Corps isn't used to lobbying for a well armed international force. But with the conflict in Central African Republic taking on dangerous sectarian tones, that's precisely what she was doing here in Washington.

SUAD JARBAWI: The international community is taking this in pieces of let's try this and wait and see what happens, and then move on to layer two. I think that approach will actually cause for a slower response than needed. And because it will be a slower response, I think we might miss the opportunity to try and actually help to the magnitude we can at the moment.

KELEMEN: Civilians in CAR have been living in utter fear, Jarbawi say. And the world should be focusing on this not just because of that humanitarian imperative, but also because the conflict has drawn in Islamist fighters from neighboring Chad, Sudan and elsewhere.

JARBAWI: Before it used to be the rest and relaxation spot for armed groups from the region, tomorrow it could become the incubator. And we need to make sure that we don't go down that path.

KELEMEN: President Obama has recorded a message for the people of CAR, calling on them not to let the fighting between the Muslim rebels and Christian defense forces tear apart the country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You can choose peace. You can choose to live up to the rule that is at the heart of all great faiths, that we treat other people the way we want to be treated ourselves. That is how we honor our faiths. That is how reconciliation occurs. That's how the Central African Republic can move forward and return to a better path.

JARBAWI: Christian and Muslim communities do have a long history of coexisting in CAR, says Jarbawi of Mercy Corps, who thinks much of the instability in the country is rooted in a fight for resources: diamonds, gold and uranium.

It's absolutely imperative right now for us to be working on social cohesion programs, to make sure we are reminding the civilian population that this is not what their normal day-to-day lives were like. And this is not a conflict that had pre-existed.

KELEMEN: But the first step is restoring basic law and order. French diplomats say that in the capital, Bangui, rebels are wearing stolen army and police uniforms and have hidden stockpiles of weapons. The French ambassador to the U.N., Gerard Araud, says his country's forces are trying to disarm these and other groups.

AMBASSADOR GERARD ARAUD: It's really quite difficult. The country is huge and our soldiers - we have only 1,600 soldiers. The Africans are arriving. There are acts of revenge, acts of looting, acts of lynching and, of course, it's very difficult to control such an area with the personnel that we have.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is playing a supportive role, giving $40 million to the African Union force and airlifting troops from Burundi to boost the number of African peacekeepers on the ground. A State Department official says this is not a cost-saving measure but rather part of America's overall strategy to build up African peacekeeping capabilities.

As for U.S. Special Forces already on the ground, they have a separate mission: To look for Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army, one of the many rebel movements that has found refuge in the chaos.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.


KELEMEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.