BANGUI, Central African Republic — In just the last three years in Africa, French forces pummeled Moammar Gadhafi's troops, helped topple Ivory Coast's holdout ex-president, and ousted al-Qaida-linked militants from the rocky Malian desert.
Now, in Central African Republic, French troops are facing a more complex and dangerous mission: Disarming militias awash in automatic weapons in cities and towns, where would-be fighters are tough to distinguish from civilians and sectarian tensions are running high.
Military analysts say the French need to be smart, move quickly, and hand over the lead to multinational African peacekeepers as soon as possible.
A former colonial power, France has 1,600 troops in Central African Republic after beefing up its military presence last week in response to a U.N. resolution authorizing outside force.
An immediate aim of the mission, which is to include some 6,000 troops from neighboring African countries as well, is disarming fighters involved in recent inter-religious strife between the majority Christians and a Muslim minority.
Muslim leaders said Wednesday that at least four men had been killed by French forces during disarmament efforts in the last several days. They questioned whether the French are also forcing Christian militiamen — who fled into the bush after attacking the capital — to hand over their weapons. To give up knives would leave Muslims defenseless during a future attack, they say, placing little faith in the French to protect them.
"Are they going to make the [Christian] anti-balaka disarm too? That is the question," said Abdel Oumar, 27, who lives in the Miskine neighborhood wracked by violence this week. "We hear that they have infiltrated neighborhoods of the capital and are hiding with their weapons there, ready to launch another attack."
The capital, Bangui, remained on edge Wednesday, but with French troops patrolling, some families ventured out to bury their dead.
The perils of the French mission were starkly exposed this week when two French soldiers were killed in a nighttime foot patrol in the capital.
French President Francois Hollande, who initially said the mission would take six months, said Wednesday in Paris that a beefed-up French deployment will last "until the African force takes over."
"What's difficult in this country is there's no state, no real authority," said retired Gen. Jean-Patrick Gaviard, a one-time head of operations at the French joint chiefs of staff. "When you usually do disarming, you speak with those who are in charge on the ground, and try to be reasonable."
Rebel leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia has tried to rein in former members of the Seleka militia that brought him to power nine months ago in a coup which ousted the Christian president.
But many defy his order to stay in their barracks, and still roam the streets with weapons. Military analysts say French forces run the risk of ambushes in Bangui's dusty and narrow streets, where armored vehicles aren't always able to enter.
In a weekend TV interview, Hollande admitted his "worry" that militias could turn into urban guerrilla groups. U.N. and other peacekeepers know the parlance of the mission well: Disarming, Demobilization and Reinsertion — the last part of which can include payouts and aid to fighters who turn in their weapons.
Thibaud Lesueur, a central Africa analyst with International Crisis Group, said these efforts in Central African Republic are "still at an embryonic phase" and "should be accelerated to bring in the militiamen."
In recent years, French forces have had experience in disarming fighters, in places like Afghanistan, where they repeatedly dismantled vast weapons caches, or in peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia.
"In ex-Yugoslavia, when dealing with Serbs and Albanians, we could speak with authorities who could mostly control their fighters," said Gaviard — but that's not so in Central African Republic.
"Africans disarming Africans doesn't have the same connotation as when it's the French. Otherwise, you look like an occupation force," Gaviard said. "The Africans [peacekeepers] need to be on the front lines as soon as possible."
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