BANGUI, Central African Republic — France and the African Union on Saturday announced plans to deploy several thousand more troops into embattled Central African Republic. 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, the 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.
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 Michel 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. 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.