France's foreign minister heads to the Central African Republic (CAR) on Sunday aiming to drum up international interest for a largely forgotten crisis that risks dragging Paris into a new military intervention in one of its former colonies.
The nation has descended into chaos since mostly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize in March, the latest coup in the country that remains one of the world's poorest despite resources ranging from gold to uranium.
France has urged world and regional powers not to ignore a conflict that has already seen more than 400,000 people driven from their homes by acts of violence such as murder and rape.
Paris is reluctant to be left to deal with another African hotspot after it felt allies such as the United States were hesitant to help it halt a rebel advance by al-Qaida-linked insurgents in Mali earlier this year.
“There is an explosive cocktail in CAR and we fear this country will become a magnet for all the armed groups in the region,” a French diplomatic source said ahead of Laurent Fabius' trip to the capital Bangui, the first by a French foreign minister in more than 10 years.
While CAR is rich in minerals, that wealth is largely unexploited thanks to decades of instability and the spillover from conflicts in larger neighbors including Sudan to the east and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the south.
Mercenaries from Chad and Sudan already form a large portion of Seleka rebels. Janjaweed Arab fighters from Darfur are present. Members of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, which Uganda accuses Khartoum of backing, have set up in the country.
CAR is geographically at the center of what some strategists have called an “arc of insecurity” involving Islamic militants and stretching from Kenya and Somalia in eastern Africa to Mauritania in the west.
The power vacuum in CAR is paving the way for al Qaeda-linked Islamists ousted from Mali, while lawlessness in north Cameroon is opening a route to CAR for Nigeria's Boko Haram.
“We are seeing the start of an internal sectarian poison that we never had in the past coupled with an international aspect that we hadn't seen either,” said the source.
Unlike some of its other colonies in Africa, France has had a poor relationship with CAR since independence in 1960, and has been reluctant to get directly involved in the crisis, urging African nations to do their utmost to resolve it.
The African Union has responded by deploying about 2,500 troops as part of its 3,600-strong MISCA mission, made up of forces from Chad, Gabon, Congo Republic and Cameroon.
But its material, logistic and financial resources are limited, prompting Paris to seek a U.N. Security Council mandate that would address that and turn MISCA into a U.N. peacekeeping force ultimately supported by French troops.
“It's not obvious, because CAR doesn't interest anybody. People hardly know where it is, and if we don't do it then nobody will,” said another French diplomat.
The immediate objective is to minimize the level of support Paris has to give by ensuring that collectively Africa, the United Nations, EU and France act together.
It also wants transitional president and former Seleka leader Michel Djotodia to completely disassociate himself from the rebels and abide by an 18-month timeline to elections.
“We're not looking for new interventions here or there. It's not for France to solve the crisis. It's no longer our role to be Africa's policeman,” said a senior French official.
“On top of that a mission like this is very costly and let's not pretend we can't do it alone given our budgetary issues.”
But if the hope is to get other world powers mobilized, there is a degree of realism in Paris that it may at some point have to get directly involved given that the level of Security Council support for giving MISCA a U.N. mandate is unclear.
Paris, which has about 400 troops in CAR protecting the airport and French interests, has already explored some options.
It could seek to boost its troop numbers to 1,200 to quickly restore security on the ground, or increase the force to 700-750 soldiers with a specific role to support MISCA.
It may also decide to keep the contingent's size unchanged, but turn it into a rapid reaction force.