CAR to have 7 600 UN peacekeepers

United Nations - The initial UN force that takes over peacekeeping duties in Central African Republic from an African force on 15 September will have 7 600 soldiers and police, the UN envoy to the conflict-wracked country said on Tuesday.

Babacar Gaye told reporters after a closed briefing to the UN Security Council that this represents about 65% of the nearly 12 000-strong force authorised by the council in April.

Britain's deputy ambassador Peter Wilson, who chaired the council meeting, said Gaye told council members he expects the full force to be on the ground early next year.

Central African Republic has been in turmoil since an alliance of Muslim rebel groups known as the Seleka overthrew the long-time president in March 2013.

After Muslim fighters went on looting sprees, raping and killing civilians at random, an armed Christian movement known as the anti-Balaka and aided by the ex-president's loyalists began retaliating, sparking sectarian bloodshed.

In January, Seleka was forced from power and tens of thousands of Muslims have fled to the north or to neighbouring countries. Thousands have been killed and despite a cease-fire signed on 23 July violence has continued.

‘Road will be bumpy’

A transitional government has been established, and about 2 000 French troops and nearly 6 000 African peacekeepers have been trying to stabilise the country.

Gaye said 5 800 members of the African force will be "rehatted" in UN blue berets and become part of the UN force, along with 1 800 fresh troops.

Wilson said that while the security situation has improved in the capital, Bangui, "in the rest of the country the situation remains extremely serious and the situation for civilians is very worrying".

"Militia groups continue to attack, and there are vulnerable populations who need protection," he said. "A clear focus of the peacekeeping mission is on protection of civilians."

Gaye noted that exactly a year ago he urged the council to take action and since then it has adopted four resolutions and authorised a peacekeeping mission. Now, there has been "international mobilisation" for the Central African Republic, known as CAR, and a political process has started, he said.

"The road will be bumpy," Gaye said, "but we'll be pushing behind so we can reach the goal which is to stabilise the country and hold free, fair and democratic elections."

Gaye said this was strong support in the council as well as regionally and internationally for maintaining Central African Republic's territorial integrity - and not allowing the north to break away.