France admits air raids on Darfur neighbours

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The Independent Online

France yesterday defended recent fighter jet raids on towns bordering Sudan's Darfur region by claiming the aggressive action was aimed at preventing regional chaos.

In the past two weeks, with minimal publicity, Mirage F1 jets have attacked and scattered a rebellion in north-eastern Central African Republic (CAR). But reports from the ground say the operation has had a devastating impact on civilians.

A French Defence Ministry spokesman said the action - which included regular Mirage sorties in neighbouring Chad where tens of thousands of refugees from Darfur are living - was in line with international calls to stabilise the region.

He claimed that without action there was a danger of a "Somalisation" of the region."We want to ensure that the Darfur crisis does not take on a further dimension. The region is crucial if we want to put a peace force in Darfur," he said.

After opposition from the Sudanese President Omar El Beshir, plans to send 20,000 United Nations peacekeepers to Darfur have been axed. Mr Beshir will only accept a beefed-up African Union force with UN logistical support.

The French operations in CAR have been centred on repelling rebels which the government claims are - like the Darfur militias - backed by the Sudanese regime. Others say the rebels of the Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement (UFDR) are disgruntled allies of CAR President François Bozizé who helped him come to power in a 2003 coup and are dissatisfied with his ruling of the country along ethnic lines. Both the rebels and Sudan deny they have any links.

In early November, the UFDR took the north-eastern town of Birao, which has a population of 30,000 people, as well as Ouadda-Djalle and Sam Ouandja.

President Bozizé asked for French help and Paris added 100 troops to the 200 already stationed in the country. These, including paratroopers, are on the ground with the CAR army and with Fomuc - soldiers brought in from regional allies Chad and Gabon.

According to the UFDR, the raids over several days at the start of December included an attack on Birao with six Mirage F1 fighters and four helicopter gunships. It claims the attack forced thousands of civilians to flee towards Darfur and southern Chad.

A French armed forces spokesman yesterday refused to give details of whether bombs, missiles or machinegun-fire had been used by the jets.

Humanitarian groups have not yet succeeded in reaching Birao but in phone calls to residents they have heard reports of executions and rapes by the CAR army.

The rebellion, according to the CAR army, was finally crushed on Monday with the capture of Ouadda-Djalle. However, there are fears that the rebels, who have scattered, will relaunch their offensive.

Nganatouwa Goungaye Wanfiyo, president of the Central African Human Rights League, said France's intervention on the side of the CAR army had been out of all proportion and may have increased the risk of a Darfur-style ethnic conflict. "They have just delayed the problem and worsened it. The opposition wants dialogue with Bozizé, that's all."

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