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Pope Arrives in Central African Republic Under Tight Security

Pope Arrives in Central African Republic Under Tight Security

Sunday, 29 November 2015 07:27 AM

Pope Francis arrived in the Central African Republic Sunday under the heaviest security seen on one of his trips to deliver a message of reconciliation to a nation racked by years of bloodshed between Muslims and Christians.

As the pope's Alitalia plane touched down from Uganda to start his first visit to a war zone, attack helicopters patrolled the skies and armoured personnel carriers from French and U.N. peacekeeping forces waited outside the airport.

Special security forces wearing patches of the yellow and white colours of the Vatican flag were on hand to help his normal Vatican security retinue.

In an unprecedented precaution for papal trips, a U.N. soldier armed with a rifle rode in each of the mini-buses carrying reporters accompanying the pope.

Bangui, the capital of the former French colony, has seen a surge in clashes that have left at least 100 people dead since late September, according to Human Rights Watch.

France, which has around 900 soldiers deployed in the country, warned the Vatican this month that the visit could be risky, and the pope's exact itinerary was in doubt in days leading up to his arrival.

But in a statement before the visit, the pope made his intentions clear: "I wish with all my heart that my visit can contribute ... to dressing the wounds and opening the way to a more serene future for Central African Republic and all its inhabitants."

Tens of thousands of cheering people lined the route of his motorcade into the city and the presidential palace for a meeting with the interim head of state and diplomats.

Later on Sunday the pope is due to visit a refugee camp and celebrate Mass at the city's cathedral, scene of an attack last year by Islamist militants that left 15 people dead among those who had sought refuge inside from violence in the city.

France sent in the soldiers in 2013 in an attempt to stem the bloodshed. Muslims and Christians have since split into segregated communities. Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled to the far north, creating a de facto partition.

About 80 percent of the impoverished country's population is Christian, 15 percent is Muslim and 5 percent animist.

Central African Republic's government is deploying around 500 police and gendarmes to secure the visit. More than 3,000 peacekeepers from the MINUSCA U.N. mission will also be deployed and French troops will be on alert as well.

General Bala Keita, MINUSCA'S force commander, said the mission aimed to head off any potential spoilers among the city's armed groups.

"We have brought banditry and attacks on civilians to the lowest level possible, but Bangui is not secure. That's a fact," he said.

Bangui is the final leg of his first African trip that has already taken him to Kenya and Uganda.

© 2021 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.


   
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Pope Francis arrived in the Central African Republic Sunday under the heaviest security seen on one of his trips to deliver a message of reconciliation to a nation racked by years of bloodshed between Muslims and Christians. As the pope's Alitalia plane touched down from...
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2015-27-29
Sunday, 29 November 2015 07:27 AM
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