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France says EU countries to send troops to C. African Republic

French soldiers patrol the streets in Bangui December 13, 2013. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun
French soldiers patrol the streets in Bangui December 13, 2013. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun

By John Irish and Bate Felix

PARIS/BANGUI (Reuters) - Some European countries will send troops to support a French-African mission to restore order in Central African Republic, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday, as more violence was reported outside the capital Bangui.

France has deployed 1,600 troops to its former colony to prevent worsening violence between Christian militias and largely Muslim Seleka rebels who ousted ex-President Francois Bozize.

Hundreds of people were killed in a week of bloodshed which began on December 5 in Bangui when fighters of both sides went door-to-door murdering civilians. Some victims were lynched or stoned to death, residents said.

At a European Union foreign ministers meeting on Monday, France requested more help from allies to bolster its peacekeeping mission beyond logistical and financial aid.

"We will soon have troops on the ground from our European colleagues," Fabius told parliament in response to a question on a lack of European support in Central African Republic.

Life in Bangui appeared to be returning to normal on Tuesday with children playing soccer and taxis passing less than half an hour before curfew, a Reuters reporter said.

But the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said that attacks have continued in the town of Bossangoa, several hundred km north of the capital, where 40,000 are seeking protection in a church.

"We continue to hear of attacks against Christians by former Seleka, with looting, killing and houses being set on fire," a UNHCR spokesman said on Tuesday.

Some 210,000 people have been displaced by violence in Bangui over the last two weeks, it said, and hundreds have risked their lives by fleeing the country by boat across a branch of the Congo river.

Rights group Amnesty International warned that more troops were urgently needed to protect residents in the capital where it said war crimes had been committed.

"The continuing violence, the extensive destruction of property, and the forced displacement of the population in Bangui are feeding enormous anger, hostility and mistrust," Amnesty's Christian Mukosa said on Tuesday.

The U.N. World Food Programme has warned that up to a quarter of the mineral-rich nation's 5.2 million population risks going hungry.

"PRACTICAL STEPS"

While European nations including Poland, Britain, Germany, Spain and Belgium have provided various forms of assistance, French troops are intervening alone for the second time this year after ousting Islamist rebels in Mali, another former French colony.

Diplomats said the ground troops involved could come from Belgium and Poland and may be used to relieve French forces who are securing the airport in Bangui.

The French foreign ministry said talks were going on and that Paris hoped the countries concerned would make decisions soon.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Polish Foreign Minister Donald Tusk stopped short of announcing ground troops.

"In CAR's case we will be ready for limited logistical support in terms of aviation," he said. "A transport aircraft and a group of soldiers, who would take care of it, is something that is within our possibilities," he said.

Belgium's defense ministry said on Friday it was sending tactical aircraft for two months for logistical support that would need 35 soldiers as support. A defense ministry official said Belgium had taken no decision to send any soldiers beyond that, denying a report it would provide 150 soldiers.

European heads of state meet in Brussels on Thursday to specifically discuss defense integration.

"During this meeting we want clear practical steps taken operationally, capacity-wise and in industrial aspects," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers.

Support at home for the French intervention has fallen since two French soldiers were killed in a firefight during a patrol in Bangui last week, a poll showed.

(Reporting By John Irish and Bate Felix; Additional reporting by Adrian Croft and Marcin Goclowski; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Pravin Char and Sonya Hepinstall)

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