A new UN mission has officially taken charge of peacekeeping operations in the Central African Republic, with the tough task of ending ethnic and religious bloodshed there and helping bring back stability.
The 7600-strong UN force, known by its French acronym MINUSCA, takes over from a smaller UN Security Council-mandated African deployment, MISCA, which has been stationed in the country since December.
MINUSCA will be boosted to count 12,000 soldiers and police officers.
In a rainswept ceremony at the airport serving the capital Bangui, the head of the UN’s peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous, delivered a symbolic blue beret to the Cameroonian general heading MISCA, Martin Chomu Tumenta, who became commander of the MINUSCA force.
“This transfer of authority marks the successful completion of MISCA’s mandate and the beginning of MINUSCA’s military and police action” in the poor, landlocked nation, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement from UN headquarters.
He urged rival sides in Central Africa “to put an immediate end to the violence” and enable a political transition to democratic rule.
The country plunged into conflict after a coup in March 2013 by a mainly Muslim rebel alliance, the Seleka, which overthrew president Francois Bozize and made their own man, Michel Djotodia, head of state.
Influential foreign leaders in January forced Djotodia to step down after he proved incapable of preventing widespread atrocities by rogue Seleka fighters.
Communities from Central Africa’s mainly Christian majority responded by setting up vigilante forces known as “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) to seek vengeance, mostly targeting Muslim civilians whom they accused of backing Seleka.
More than a quarter of the Central African Republic’s population of 4.8 million has been displaced by the strife, while only one Muslim district remains in Bangui. Everybody else fled the killings, rape and systematic looting by anti-balaka forces.