— France's defense minister says the Central African Republic must not be allowed to split, as warnings continue from human rights groups that massive ethnic cleansing is taking place in the conflict-torn country.
French Defense Minister Jean Yves Le Drian held talks in Bangui with top French military officers and the Central African Republic's interim President Catherine Samba Panza, who joined him in a visit to the southwestern part of the country.
Le Drian's visit to the CAR is his third since France launched its Sangaris military operation there late last year. It coincides with warnings by two top rights groups, Amnesty International
and Human Rights Watch
, of "ethnic cleansing" in some places targeting the country's minority Muslim population.
That assessment was echoed by U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
Speaking to France 24 TV, Guterres described the situation in CAR as a humanitarian catastrophe. He called on the international community for an immediate troop increase to restore security.
Roughly 1,600 French troops and 6,000 Africans are in the CAR to try to restore security, amid horrific violence between the country's Christian and Muslim populations.
Earlier this month, Le Drian said the United Nations would likely extend its six-month mandate for French forces in the country. The European Union is also expected to deploy 500 soldiers to the capital in early March.
On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced he had asked France to consider sending more troops to the CAR to help stop escalating violence that has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
A DRC soldier, part of an African peacekeeping force, patrols along a street in Bangui, Feb. 12, 2014.
DRC soldiers, part of an African peacekeeping force, patrol along a street in Bangui, Feb. 12, 2014.
People collect food distributed by aid agencies at a camp for people displaced by the recent unrest, at the Mpoko international airport of Bangui, Feb. 12, 2014.
People displaced by the recent unrest collect food distributed by aid agencies at an IDP camp at the Mpoko international airport of Bangui, Feb. 12, 2014.
A boy displaced by inter-communal violence walks past a vendor in a camp for displaced persons at Bangui M'Poko International Airport, Feb. 11, 2014.