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France is sending 1,000 troops to an African nation, to try to prevent it from dissolving into total chaos. It's the Central African Republic; and it's rich in gold, diamonds and uranium. But it also remains one of the world's most underdeveloped nations. The country has been the scene of many coups, the most recent in March. Since then, rebels have been pillaging towns and villages, and the conflict is drawing in fighters from neighboring countries. And an ill-quipped African force has been unable to stem the violence.
NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the international response so far.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A former journalist turned human rights activist, Philippe Bolopion, thought he was wel- prepared for his recent trip into Central African Republic.
PHILIPPE BOLOPION: I knew that the situation was bad, but I was not prepared for the level of brutality that we saw on the ground.
KELEMEN: Bolopion and his team from Human Rights Watch met with victims of the Seleka rebels, Muslim fighters who have been rampaging through villages and attacking churches ever since they toppled the government in CAR in March. The activists also met with victims of Christian self-defense militias, which Bolopion says are using some of the same tactics as the Seleka fighters, targeting civilians.
BOLOPION: When you reach a situation where people are shooting at infant babies, when they are slitting the throats of children and women - outside of any active fighting situation - you know that you are in a very dangerous situation, and that it will take a lot of work to prevent retaliations even more massive than human rights violations.
KELEMEN: The U.N. Security Council has been debating what to do.
JAN ELIASSON: The country in the heart of Africa is descending into complete chaos before our eyes.
KELEMEN: That's the U.N.'s deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, urging the Security Council to act quickly and consider plans for a U.N. force for CAR. But he acknowledges that takes time. And for now, diplomats are focused on helping African troops that are already there, as the French Ambassador to the U.N. Gerard Araud explains.
GERARD ARAUD: We have the African force. The African countries are committed to act. So the emergency, you know, commands that we support the African force. But we don't exclude the peacekeeping operation down the road.
KELEMEN: France is sending troops to act as a bridging force, he says, to support the African Union-led mission. But Bolopion, of Human Rights Watch, says this is a job for U.N. peacekeepers. He says the African troops he saw in CAR are ill-equipped, and not up to the task.
BOLOPION: In Bangui, I have seen some of these African peacekeepers make extra money by providing security to private businesses and hotels, for example. So you rarely see them with a sort of robust, proactive stance; showing armed groups that they are there to protect civilians, and that they mean business.
KELEMEN: He recently testified on Capitol Hill, where the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee - Republican Ed Royce - painted a grim picture of what's happening in CAR, and explained why he thinks the U.S. should do more. Royce says the conflict has drawn in fighters from neighboring Chad and Sudan, including the Janjaweed militias that carried out mass atrocities in Darfur.
REP. ED ROYCE: And if that is not bad enough, elsewhere, the Lord's Resistance Army - or the LRA, under the psychotic leader Joseph Kony - is also loose in the Central African Republic.
KELEMEN: Royce pressed a top State Department official, Robert Jackson, about the U.S. troop presence in the region.
ROBERT JACKSON: We do have U.S. troops in the Central African Republic, acting as advisers. And their only mission is to support the AU; to counter the Lord's Resistance Army and encourage defections, and of course, find Joseph Kony.
KELEMEN: As to the broader conflict in Central African Republic, Jackson reaffirmed that the U.S. thinks it will take too much time to start a U.N. peacekeeping mission. So the State Department is offering $40 million in equipment and training for the African Union mission already there.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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