Foreign Minister discusses Central African Republic intervention

Central African Republic – Interview given by M. Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs, to I-télé/Europe 1 (excerpts)

Paris, 15 December 2013

Q. – Is it true that the presidential plane was or may have been threatened at Bangui airport by the Séléka militias?

MINISTER – I was in that presidential plane and we spent the whole evening and some of the night in Bangui. I absolutely didn’t hear anything said about that.

Q. – Would you have found out?

MINISTER – Yes.

Q. – And the President didn’t know about it either?

MINISTER – We were together.

Q. – We’re told that the 1,600 French soldiers don’t know what the real mission is today in the Central African Republic.

MINISTER – Of course they know, and they’re doing outstanding work. The President and I decided to go to Bangui at the beginning of the week. We then learned in the night that two young French soldiers aged 22 and 23 had been killed.

The President gathered all the soldiers who were there, under the orders of General Soriano, who is a remarkable man. He addressed them, and it was extremely emotional. We then had a discussion with those admirable soldiers and talked to them about their mission.

What is that mission? Firstly, impartial disarmament. If France hadn’t intervened, with other African countries, the Central African Republic would have plunged into civil and inter-religious war.

I understand French people telling themselves that it’s far away and may be costly, but when your friends are about to be massacred, when the United Nations unanimously asks you to intervene, France has the responsibility to do so.

You go there to disarm impartially. You go there to help with humanitarian action and you go there to prepare the democratic transition.

Q. – With 1,600 soldiers, on the basis of a limited mandate, in a country as huge as the Central African Republic, how do we go about it?

MINISTER – There are 1,600 French and 6,000 African soldiers.

Q. – They’re not very operational!

MINISTER – You haven’t been there. I’ve been there twice. I went there three weeks ago, and I can tell you those soldiers are brave. You can’t sit there and say they’re no good. I’m telling you they’re outstanding people.

We’re in that country for humanitarian assistance, impartial disarmament and to prepare the democratic transition.

Q. – You say they must be disarmed impartially, but we disarmed the Muslims first, which enabled the Christians to go and kill Muslims.

MINISTER – That’s inaccurate. There are Muslims who make up a group known as the “ex-Séléka”. That group was dissolved, in theory, by the current president, M. Djotodia, who is their former leader. But they still have weapons. So the first task is to go and disarm them.

But there are also Christians, be they Catholic or Protestant, who also have a number of weapons, particularly machetes. That’s extremely dangerous too, and they need to be disarmed.

We’re not alone. Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was on a mission in the CAR, returned to Paris yesterday. I had a meeting with him. He told me that the patrols were made up of French and African soldiers, with Congolese nationals and Chadians.

Q. – It’s very dangerous; we saw this when our two soldiers died. Won’t we get bogged down, and won’t there be ever more French or African casualties during this disarmament, which has to be done person by person, block by block?

MINISTER – It’s true that it’s a very difficult task, but that’s the mission given to us by the UN and the African Union. In Paris last week, 52 African countries unanimously, plus the UN Secretary-General and the European leaders, welcomed France’s commitment.

Q. – France never has enough missions. Ultimately one gets the impression that France alone must go to Mali or the Central African Republic!

MINISTER – It is indeed a big problem. France isn’t Africa’s gendarme, but it so happens that for the time being – and we’re working to ensure this changes – France is the only country with forces capable of intervening in large numbers.

This must be changed; that’s why we decided, along with the Africans, to set up what’s called an African rapid-deployment force. Within two years, it will be able to intervene in this kind of crisis.

Why isn’t there a sufficiently solid African army? First of all, because it’s costly, and those states’ budgets are often insufficient; secondly, because a number of African leaders are reluctant to create armies because they’re afraid they might turn against them. So an African force is needed. We’re going to set it up, together with the Europeans and Africans.

We’ve obviously asked not to be alone. Nearly 6,000 African soldiers and police will soon be deployed in the Central African Republic. Then there are the Europeans. I won’t be surprised if they step up their presence. The Poles in particular will be with us at logistical level, as will the British, Germans, Spanish and Belgians. Tomorrow I’ll be going to the Foreign Affairs Council, and I’ll ask for more solid, stronger support, including on the ground and financially.

Q. – Are they providing troops?

MINISTER – Two countries are thinking about it; I hope they’ll give an answer.

The issue you rightly raise is that there’s still no Defence Europe. We would like it to exist. There are units which could intervene. They’re currently run by the British but it changes every six months. In this specific case, they’re saying that it isn’t European enough and that there haven’t been enough deliberations.

In Europe, France isn’t alone and we can’t, as far as sovereignty is concerned, force the other countries to get involved. In the immediate future, in the Central African Republic, it is still urgent, however, to come to the assistance of men, women and children who are dying.

Q. – Will the contingent have to be increased?

MINISTER – No, we won’t increase it. There are 4.5 million people in the Central African Republic, nearly half are facing near-famine and there are only seven surgeons. So France, Europe, the Africans and the international community have to mobilize. When you represent France and you see your friends being massacred, you take action.

Q. – So who can help on the humanitarian front? There’s famine; food needs to be provided. Doesn’t an appeal need to be issued to the world?

MINISTER – There’s Europe and the United Nations. As you’ll remember, in September François Hollande was the first, at the United Nations, to say that we had to attend to the Central African Republic.

Q. – He also said this on 29 August to the ambassadors and with you.

MINISTER – Absolutely.

Q. – But wasn’t it a mistake to allow Mr Bozizé to be toppled nine months ago?

Today’s problems must be sorted out today. What’s being done for those who are dying of hunger?

MINISTER – We’ve got to begin by resolving today’s problems.

There’s a change compared to France’s previous approach, in that it isn’t France which makes or breaks dictators. France is helping the Africans. It isn’t the same thing.

Q. – So Djotodia is the head of Séléka?

MINISTER – No. He was, but isn’t any longer. He’s the interim president. The Prime Minister is Mr Tiangaye.

Q. – Will he be able to stand in the presidential election?

MINISTER – No, they won’t be allowed to. This is what’s been decided by the African Union. They won’t be able to, but the democratic transition has to be prepared. So I repeat: first there has to be impartial disarmament, humanitarian assistance and preparation for the democratic transition. This is France’s role. (…)./.

Published on 16/12/2013

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