TWO FRENCH SOLDIERS have been killed in the Central African Republic, officials said today, on the second day of an operation to disarm fighters sowing sectarian violence in the country.
The deaths come as the UN-mandated military operation there is being expanded with US logistical help. The two paratroopers were fatally wounded while conducting a night patrol late last night 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 is to visit the Central African Republic late Tuesday, after attending a memorial service with world leaders in South Africa honouring Nelson Mandela.
Among the leaders gathered in Soweto will be US 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 US 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 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.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF told AFP in Bangui that nearly 480,000 people — mostly women and children — had been displaced since the March coup.