France on Tuesday delivered hundreds of assault weapons to Central African Republic (CAR) to fight the growing influence of armed groups in its former colony and said it had no objections in principle to lifting a U.N. arms embargo on the country.
Paris is worried about growing Russian influence and military presence in CAR, which has struggled with fighting since a 2013 civil war, often between Christian and Muslim militias.
Speaking in the capital Bangui, Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said the 1,400 assault weapons would be for the 7,000 national forces, who face an equivalent number of armed militia.
"What is important is that Central African armed forces are equipped, armed. If they were not then it would be the armed groups who would have the advantage and this is obviously not the goal," Parly told reporters.
Despite electing a new leader in 2016, the country has been mired in tit-for-tat inter-communal violence and political instability.
It pleaded for help in 2017 to fight the militias, arguing it was hobbled by a U.N. arms embargo since 2013 which meant weapons shipments had to be approved by the U.N. Security Council's CAR sanctions committee, which includes France and Russia.
Despite initial French efforts to deliver arms, Moscow obtained the go-ahead from the U.N. last December and has since given additional equipment and deployed instructors, escalating its most significant military foray in Africa in decades.
France was given an exemption to the embargo in February.
"It is key that these weapons ... can be identified, stored, traced, and once these conditions are met, there is no reason for the embargo not to be lifted," Parly said.
"These conditions have progressed enormously, so there is no difficulty in principle."
The embargo is due to be renewed at the end of January. The rivalry with Moscow has also played out at the U.N. Security Council. It must renew the mandate for the peacekeeping mission by Saturday.
In November the council extended the mandate for a month as diplomats said France and Russia wrangled over language on CAR peace efforts.
Paris in private accused Moscow of undermining existing peace efforts by pushing its own initiatives, a charge Moscow has denied.
"It's vital that the help provided, notably by Russia, respects the rules that have been put down by the international community and United Nations," Parly said.
As part of efforts to curb Russia's influence, France, which still has about 200 soldiers on the ground, upped its development aid in November.