French President Francois Hollande says there is a risk of "civil war" in the Central African Republic, where French troops are trying to disarm militias and halt escalating violence.
Mr. Hollande made the comment late Tuesday during a brief stop in the CAR's capital, Bangui, after attending a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
He said, "For weeks, massacres have been perpetrated, (and) there has been horrendous violence against women and children. The clashes that were taking place and which are ongoing are taking on a religious dimension with the risk of ending in a civil war."
He told French soldiers that their immediate goal in the CAR is to restrict and disarm militias and prevent clashes.
He also paid tribute to two French soldiers who were shot and killed by unidentified gunmen earlier in the day.
Mr. Hollande said "What is most difficult to achieve is not to put an end to a conflict or even topple a dictatorship. What is most difficult to do is to reconciliate a people which has been torn apart. That is your mission," he said, "and we need to succeed in this mission. Succeed for the future of Central African Republic, succeed for France's honor, succeed for the memory of Antoine Le Quinio and Nicolas Vokaer."
Some 1,600 French troops are working with African forces in CAR as part of a United Nations-mandated effort to restore security and protect civilians.
Hundreds of people were killed in Bangui last week, as the U.N. Security Council authorized an expanded African and French presence in the CAR.
The country has spiraled out of control since mostly Muslim rebels, known as Seleka, overthrew president Francois Bozize in March.
Months of looting and killing have brought retaliation by allies of Bozize and Christian militias, known as anti-balaka.