Created on Friday, 06 December 2013 Written by KRISTA LARSON, Associated Press LORI HINNANT, Associated Press
BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — At first, it was just a few people running from the men with machetes and guns. Then the trickle of fear that led straight to the airport swelled into a flood.
By Friday, with the Central African Republic's capital of Bangui hovering at the edge of anarchy, thousands of people crammed into the country's only true sanctuary — the airport — because of the French forces protecting it.
As French soldiers and equipment — including a fighter jet, helicopters, parachutists and armored vehicles — rumbled their way into one of the world's poorest countries, locals stood behind coils of barbed wire, banging on plastic buckets, waving rags in the air and singing with joy.
There was no hope of flying away in any of those aircraft. Still, residents of Bangui stayed because this was the place where, at least for a while, they were least afraid of the spasm of bloodshed that left more than 100 people dead Thursday in the lawless capital.
Appolinaire Donoboy told The Associated Press he counted five bodies on his way to the airport.
"They are slaughtering us like chickens," said Donoboy, a Christian whose family remained in hiding as former rebels search house-to-house.
Muslim rebels known as Seleka have run rampant in Central African Republic after toppling the president in March, fighting against Christian militias who back the ousted leader, Francois Bozize. The capital remains awash in weapons and recent attempts at disarmament have yielded little success. Thursday's bloodshed came as Christian militias raided Muslim neighborhoods.
"Thanks to France and the United Nations who want to save the Central Africans, soon the Seleka attacks on civilians will stop. We have had enough of Seleka killing, raping and stealing," said Abel Nguerefara, who lives on the outskirts of Bangui.
Streets in the city were empty Friday except for military vehicles and the trucks favored by the rebel forces who now claim control of the government. Nine unclaimed bodies lay sprawled in front of the parliament building — local Red Cross workers didn't dare retrieve them, or other bodies that were left to decay outside.
Despite the cheers that went up when a jet engine roared overhead, France insisted it was going only reluctantly into Central African Republic and with the limited aim of doubling its presence in the country to 1,200 troops.
About 1,000 French forces were expected to be on the ground by Friday evening, a French defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. Britain also flew in a C-17 plane Friday loaded with equipment to help with France's intervention.
"You have to secure, you have to disarm," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Radio France Internationale. "You have to ensure that the vandals, the bandits, the militias know they can't use the streets of Bangui for their battles."
Le Drian said French forces protecting the airport opened fire Thursday on a rebel pickup truck bearing down on them, killing several men inside. He described the shooting as "legitimate defense."
Still, it remains an open question how France can achieve even its limited goals in the six months allotted to the mission.
"There's a big gap between the vision France has of itself as a global power and as a power that can intervene," said Aline Leboeuf, a security and development specialist at the French Institute for International Relations.
The real question, she added, is: "Can you intervene in the right way and when do you leave?"
France's military, which controls Bangui airport, said about 2,000 Central Africans took refuge there Thursday, most if not all of them Christian. The crowd swelled on Friday.
Yves Wayina, 26, fled with his wife and six children.
"France must come and rapidly deploy and do everything possible to save us," he told the AP on Friday.
Since 2011, France has intervened in four African countries, in Ivory Coast, on a joint mission in Libya, in Mali and now in Central African Republic.
Rebel leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia appealed for calm, even as his residence and that of the prime minister were looted and vandalized by the fighters Thursday. He announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew in hopes of preventing retaliatory violence against Christians from Muslims.
In a speech broadcast Thursday in the Sango language and a television interview in French, Djotodia called on people to realize that French forces were not in Central African Republic to take sides in an increasingly sectarian conflict.
Scores of residents died in Thursday's attack, including 48 people whose bodies were laid out at a mosque in a northern suburb of Bangui. The charity group Doctors Without Borders said another 50 deaths had been confirmed at its hospitals, bringing the toll to 98. And at least 12 bodies went unclaimed on Friday.
Djotodia, the country's current ruler, who is Muslim, unified rebel groups in the country's mostly Muslim north, where resentment of the federal government and a sense of disenfranchisement has been rife for years. Yet once those rebels were unleashed upon the capital, he wielded very little control over the mix of bush fighters, child soldiers and foreign mercenaries he had recruited.
Supporters of the ousted president formed self-defense militias such as those behind Thursday's attack, which came hours before the U.N. Security Council voted to authorize the French deployment.
"We're appreciative of France, but we know that 50 years after our independences, France is again required to come in as a fireman to save us — it's not right," said Alpha Conde, president of Guinea. "It's a humiliation for Africa that 50 years afterward, we are not at all able to manage our problems ourselves."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius repeated his government's desire for a robust African force to intervene in the future.
"It's not up to France to intervene each time," he said.
Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten, Elaine Ganley and Sylvie Corbet in Paris, and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.