A Pivotal Week for the Central African Republic

This is a pivotal week for the Central African Republic. French forces started to arrive over the weekend. Their presence helped quell an outburst of fighting in the capital city of Bangui, which claimed over 300 lives. But lawlessness, banditry, and ethnic based attacks by armed militias still persist in Bangui and elsewhere.

On the eve of the French intervention French defense minister  Jean-Yves Le Drian said with some bluster that a key part of the mission was to disarm rebels. “It’s from tomorrow that the disarmament will start. First we’ll ask nicely and if they don’t react, we’ll do it by force,” he said in a TV interview last sunday.

It was apparently in the course of performing that duty that two French soldiers were killed yesterday.

The two French soldiers, marine paratroopers from the 8th Regiment based in Castres, died after coming under attack at close range during an overnight patrol, the government said.

According to Celestin Christ Leon, a spokesman for the African peacekeeping force in Bangui, a rebel commander was harassing people, who called the French to come and help them.

“They came and tried to disarm the Seleka but gunfire erupted,” he said.

The French deserve a great amount of credit for putting their lives on the line to protect civilians and attempt to impose a modicum of order to a lawless city, teeming with ethnic tension. Francois Hollande is en route to Bangui from Nelson Mandela’s funeral, in a very public demonstration of France’s commitment.

The USA is also getting into the game, though farther removed from the action. US transport planes are supporting the French and African-Union mission, and President Obama delivered a personal message to the people of CAR, urging them to refrain from religious based violence.

Still, the French are very much in the lead. A key measure of success of this mission will be the extent to which the French will stay engaged, despite tragedies and setbacks like the killing of two soldiers today.