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By Richard Downie and Mikenna Maroney

09 Dec 13. The United Nations Security Council has authorized African Union peacekeepers, bolstered by French troops, to use force to protect civilians and restore order in the Central African Republic (CAR). CAR has been in chaos since a coalition of rebel groups toppled President Francois Bozizé in March. The violence has begun to take on sectarian dimensions, with tit-for-tat killings of Christians and Muslims. As Security Council members cast their votes in New York, news filtered in of an upsurge of fighting in the capital Bangui, between fighters loyal to the former president and those representing Seleka, the rebel movement which ousted him. French paratroopers almost immediately fanned out across the city and begun to restore calm but the operation was too late to save up to 400 people whose bodies were counted by the French embassy in Bangui.

Q1: What led to the current crisis in the Central African Republic?

A1: CAR has suffered chronic instability since gaining independence from France in 1960. Francois Bozizé, the latest in a succession of military rulers, seized power in 2003 but never gained a firm hold on the state, following a well-trodden path of misrule which eventually provoked armed rebellion. His position became increasingly shaky following his declaration of victory in elections in 2011 that were widely seen as illegitimate. A collection of armed groups, mostly from CAR’s Muslim minority, formed a movement called Seleka, meaning alliance in the local Sango language. Sweeping south from their base near the border with Chad and Sudan, they grabbed power in the capital, Bangui, in March 2013 after President Bozizé reneged on the terms of an earlier ceasefire. Seleka leader Michel Djotodia became interim president but has never been able to control the armed factions who helped install him.

In September Djotodia attempted to distance himself from the abusive Seleka forces by announcing the dissolution of the movement and the integration of rebels into the state security forces. But Seleka fighters have continued to operate unchecked throughout the country, preying on the population and committing horrifying abuses. The violence has intensified in recent months due to the formation of vigilante protection groups called anti-Balaka by CAR’s Christian majority to oppose the mainly Muslim—and in many cases, foreign—Seleka forces. This has led to sectarian attacks in which civilians have been targeted by both sides. As a result of the nine months of instability and violence half of the country’s 4.6 million people are in need of urgent assistance and more than 400,000 have been displaced. While Bangui has experienced violence, looting and instability, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs have uncovered evidence of mass killings, torture, and forced displacement in rural areas. These accounts are supported by the head of the UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) who said that only a small fraction of those displaced and in need of assistance can currently be reached.

Q2: What role have the French played in responding to the crisis? What has been the response of the international community as a whole?

A2: A contingent of peacekeepers from the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) have been present in CAR since 2008 but were unable to exert much influence on the crisis. In July, the African Union decided to beef up the response by announcing the formation of an AU-led International Support Mission for CAR, known by its French acronym of MISCA. It is envisaged that the MISCA force will eventually be composed of 6,000 troops, but it has been slow to deploy and is not due to officially take over from the ECCAS force until later in December. Recognizing that the speed of the crisis was outpacing the response, France announced plans to increase its m

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