France is withdrawing troops from Central African Republic as a United Nations peacekeeping force nears its full deployment, but it will keep a presence to support the U.N. with a rapid reaction force, officials and diplomats said.
France has 2,000 troops in its former colony after intervening a year ago to stem violence between Christian militias and the largely Muslim Seleka rebels who took power.
The rebels’ rule was marked by abuses that prompted a backlash from the "anti-balaka" Christian militia. Cycles of tit-for-tat violence continued despite Seleka leader Michel Djotodia's resignation from the presidency in January.
France's Sangaris troops and U.N. peacekeepers, who number about 7,500 now, have struggled to help a weak transitional government stamp its authority on the mineral-rich country.
General Eric Bellot des Minieres, head of the French force, said troops would be reduced in line with the U.N. increase. That is due to reach 10,000 by April 30.
"Sangaris will not stay like it is," he told reporters. Once the U.N.’s stabilization mission "is fully operational, we will reorganize into a smaller force, based most probably in Bangui," the capital.
Army officials said the reorganization would mean sending more military hardware such as Tiger attack helicopters and surveillance drones to enable troops to respond quickly to threats.
Thousands of people have died, been displaced or fled to neighboring countries since the "anti-balaka" took up arms in response to months of killings, looting and rape by Seleka forces. That has left the country unofficially split into two.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders, or Medecins Sans Frontieres, on Thursday said the general situation remained "catastrophic."
French officials say the intervention ended the spiral of violence, restored a minimum security and paved the way to begin reconciliation and restoration of the administrative and social infrastructure.
"We're not crying victory. Look at Kosovo. That took 15 years," said a military source. “It won't be resolved by military means alone. It now needs a global approach that includes political, economic and judicial pillars."
French special forces are being deployed in the country’s far east and eastern regions – where more radical elements of the Seleka rebels are based – to pave the way for Pakistani, Zambian and Moroccan battalions, sources said.
"We need a foothold there because the U.N. will need to deploy at some point to ensure the elections take place," said a diplomatic source. Presidential and legislative elections are expected in July.