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France, AU send more troops to African nation

Sunday - 12/8/2013, 6:28am  ET

Relatives of Thierry Tresor Zumbeti, who died from bullet wounds to the neck and stomach, grieve outside his home in Bangui, Central African Republic, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. Zumbeti was buried beside his house. Christians fearing reprisal attacks from the Muslim ex-rebels who control Central African Republic fled on foot by the thousands Saturday, as others ventured outside for the first in time in days only to bury their dead following the worst violence to wrack the lawless country in months. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

KRISTA LARSON
Associated Press

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) -- France and the African Union on Saturday announced plans to deploy several thousand more troops into embattled Central African Republic, as thousands of Christians fearing reprisal attacks sought refuge from the Muslim former rebels who now control the country after days of violence left nearly 400 people dead -- and possibly more.

French armored personnel carriers and troops from an AU-backed peacekeeping mission roared at high speed down Bangui's major roads, as families carrying palm fronds pushed coffins in carts on the road's shoulder. In a sign of the mounting tensions, others walking briskly on the streets carried bow-and-arrows and machetes.

Concluding an aptly-timed and long-planned conference on African security in Paris, President Francois Hollande said France was raising its deployment to 1,600 on Saturday -- 400 more than first announced. Later, after a meeting of regional nations about Central African Republic, his office said that African Union nations agreed to increase their total deployment to 6,000 -- up from about 2,500 now, and nearly double the projected rollout of 3,600 by year-end.

Amid new massacres on Thursday, U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution that allows for a more muscular international effort to quell months or unrest in the country. Troops from France, the country's former colonial overseer, were patrolling roads in Bangui and fanning out into the troubled northwest on Saturday.

"This force is going to deploy as quickly as possible and everywhere there are risks for the population, with the African forces that are present -- currently 2,500 soldiers," Hollande said, referring to the increased French presence. "In what I believe will be a very short period we will be able to stop all exactions and massacres."

In an interview with France-24 TV, Hollande said the AU reinforcements would arrive "in the coming days," without specifying. He said 1,600 French troops was "enough: There won't be more," and added that they would remain as planned for about six months -- though a residual force of 500 to 600 might stay thereafter.

Word of the bigger deployments came as human rights groups continued the grisly business of counting and collecting bodies of those killed in recent massacres. The death toll in the capital from the recent fighting rose on Saturday to 394, said Antoine Mbao Bogo of the local Red Cross.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking on i-Tele TV, said France accelerated plans for the 1,600-strong deployment because of the "upsurge" in violence since Thursday. He said French forces would disarm any armed militias, and would use force if the fighters don't hand over their weapons peacefully.

He said French troops had been sent to Bossangoa, the home region of ousted President Francois Bozize and many of his perceived supporters.

Central African Republic President Michel Djotodia called on former rebels who are now integrated into the national army to stay off the streets now being patrolled by French and regional forces. Presidential spokesman Guy Simplice Kodegue said those who violated the order would be punished.

One of the world's poorest countries, Central African Republic has been wracked for decades by coups and rebellions. In March, a Muslim rebel alliance known as Seleka overthrew the Christian president of a decade. At that time, religious ideology played little role in the power grab. The rebels soon installed Djotodia as president, though he exerted little control over forces on the ground. He has since formally disbanded the Seleka coalition, but the former rebels now consider themselves the army.

Now, sectarian strife has grown. On Saturday, aid workers returned to the streets to collect bloated bodies that had lay uncollected in the heat since Thursday, when Christian fighters known as the anti-balaka, who oppose Djotodia, descended on the capital in a coordinated attack on several mostly Muslim neighborhoods. Residents of Christian neighborhoods said Seleka have counter-attacked by going house-to-house in search of alleged combatants and firing at civilians who merely strayed into the wrong part of town.

Zumbeti Thierry Tresor, 23, was among those slain after he tried to cross through another neighborhood to visit family members in another part of Bangui. Seleka fighters shot him in the neck and stomach, his friends said. On Saturday, neighbors hiked the rocky path to his one-room home where his covered body lay on the floor underneath neatly hung music posters.

Outside the front door, his wife wailed hysterically, gripping their 3-year-old daughter in her lap as neighbors crowded around her. Alongside their house, a team of a dozen men with sticks and shovels dug Tresor's grave under the shade of a tree.

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