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EU launches military operation in Central African Republic

By Tom Watkins, CNN
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
A muslim woman sits in the courtyard of the Catholic church of Bossamptele where she has taken refuge on March 7, 2014.
A muslim woman sits in the courtyard of the Catholic church of Bossamptele where she has taken refuge on March 7, 2014.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • EU forces will operate in the capital city of Bangui and in the airport
  • "It is vital that there is a return to public order as soon as possible," EU says
  • Central African Republic was plunged into chaos last year after ouster of the President

(CNN) -- Help is on the way.

The European Union announced in a news release that it is launching a military operation to restore stability to the Central African Republic.

The operation's mission "is to provide temporary support in achieving a safe and secure environment in the Bangui area, with a view to handing over to a U.N. peacekeeping operation or to African partners," it said.

"The force will thereby contribute both to international efforts to protect the populations most at risk and to the creation of the conditions for providing humanitarian aid."

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The forces -- known by the acronym EUFOR RCA -- will operate in the capital city of Bangui and in its airport.

"The launch of this operation demonstrates the EU's determination to take full part in international efforts to restore stability and security in Bangui and right across the Central African Republic," said Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of the commission, in a statement.

"It is vital that there is a return to public order as soon as possible, so that the political transition process can be put back on track."

Though the announcement did not say how many troops were to be sent, a news briefing was scheduled for Wednesday in Brussels, Belgium, with Maj. Gen. Philippe Ponties, commander of the operation.

Also on Wednesday, a high-level meeting to be held in the margins of the EU-Africa summit was to include several African and European heads of state as well as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

France, the former colonial power in the Central African Republic, deployed 1,600 personnel there to support African Union troops in December after a U.N. Security Council vote authorizing military intervention.

The African nation was plunged into chaos last year after a coalition of mostly Muslim rebels known as Seleka ousted President Francois Bozize.

Attempts to purge Muslims from parts of the war-torn country have prompted "a Muslim exodus of historic proportions," Amnesty International has warned.

In a statement last month, it said that areas of the capital were increasingly controlled by Christian militias, which have filled the power vacuum created by Bozize's ouster and attacked civilians and African Union-led peacekeepers.

"This flare-up in violence is cause for serious concern, given the backdrop of ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity across the Central African Republic since last December," said Christian Mukosa, the organization's Central Africa researcher.

"It is just further evidence of what Amnesty International has been saying for months -- that the small contingent of peacekeeping troops on the ground will not be able to protect civilians effectively without more help from the international community."

Since March 22, the Red Cross has recorded at least 15 civilian deaths in Bangui, and Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, has treated dozens of people for life-threatening wounds sustained in attacks.

The attacks have taken place despite the installation in January of a transitional government and the presence of 6,000 African Union-led troops and 2,000 French soldiers.

"Extrajudicial executions, torture, looting and other atrocities are perpetrated against civilians on a daily basis," Amnesty said. "The organization was the first to document ethnic cleansing of the country's Muslim population in January: thousands have since fled to neighbouring countries where they are now facing another humanitarian catastrophe due to dire living conditions."

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