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French Peacekeepers Pull Out as New Violence Erupts in the Central African Republic

France just ended its mission in the CAR, leaving the country with scandal-plagued U.N. peacekeepers.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

In the midst of an outbreak of fresh violence in the Central African Republic, France declared its peacekeeping mission a “success” and said its troops would be leaving. That’s landed like a ton of bricks on leaders of the CAR, who are struggling to deal with a deteriorating security situation while saddled with U.N. blue helmets tainted by charges of sexual assault and ineptitude.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said his country was ending the mission, dubbed Operation Sangaris, in the CAR’s capital of Bangui on Monday. He assured local leaders that France “will retain an ability to intervene at very short notice.”

“I am very pleased to note that we are closing the Sangaris operation. We are closing the operation because it has been a success,” said Le Drian. Some 65 people have been killed in the last month by militia-fueled violence.

Many believe the CAR is not ready for France’s withdrawal. The announcement “is for us, let’s be frank, a source of concern,” according to Abdoul Karim Meckassoua, the CAR’s National Assembly President. He added that such a move could “provoke” militias, worsening the country’s fragile security situation. The timetable on France’s withdrawal is not clear.

The CAR’s latest problems began in 2013 when a loose coalition of Muslim rebels — calling themselves the Séléka — ousted then-President François Bozizé. That prompted military missions from the African Union and France in 2013 to stem the violence that followed between the Séléka and predominately Christian militias known as the “anti-Balaka.” In September 2014, the AU transferred its authority to the U.N.

But the U.N. mission, including some 13,000 peacekeepers, has struggled to retain legitimacy in the country it is trying to protect. In 2014, allegations arose of peacekeepers perpetrating child rape and sex abuse that led to a series of inquiries over the past 18 months. French troops were also implicated in the scandal that an independent U.N. study called a “gross institutional failure.”

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch released a new report outlining how the U.N. peacekeepers “failed to halt the attack” on a displaced persons camp outside of Kaga-Bandaro on October 12; in the ensuing violence, humanitarian workers were forced to end relief efforts around there.

“Deadly attacks like these show why U.N. peacekeepers were given a mandate to protect civilians with all necessary means — and why they need to enforce it,” Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch said in the report.

The recent scandals sparked violent protests against the peacekeeping mission that killed four and injured 14, including five blue helmets, on Oct. 24.

France will leave a residual force of 350 troops in the country to support the U.N. force even after it wraps up its mission, Le Drian said. Back in Paris, policymakers tried to further assuage concerns in Bangui.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said France “will never abandon [the CAR]” in an interview with France24 on Monday.

Photo Credit: PACOME PABANDJI/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer