Bangui, Central African Republic: France’s Operation Sangaris will formally end on Monday, almost three years after the military mission was launched in December 2013 to quell inter-ethnic unrest in Central African Republic (CAR).
The operation initially ran alongside an African Union peacekeeping mission called MISCA, which later morphed into the United Nations’ (UN) MINUSCA force, helping to restore stability in the capital, Bangui, yet without managing to end violence elsewhere.
At its height, more than 2,500 troops from various French units took part.
In June, France said it had reduced its force in CAR to 350 soldiers, who would serve as a tactical reserve force for the UN peacekeepers, effectively announcing the end of its military mission there.
Here is an overview of why Operation Sangaris was launched and what it accomplished.
On December 5, 2013, widespread clashes erupted in Bangui that left hundreds of bodies lying in the streets.
Christian militia groups, known as anti-Balaka (anti-machete) attacked several areas, targeting Muslims and triggering revenge attacks by the mainly-Muslim Seleka rebel alliance.
Seleka fighters had already targeted the majority Christian population, a key reason why the anti-Balaka groups had emerged. Attacks by both sides, mostly against civilians, plunged CAR into a humanitarian, political, and security crisis.
A few hours after the violence broke out, a French force began deploying across the country as part of a UN-mandated effort to quell the deadly wave of sectarian violence. The operation was named “Sangaris” after a small red butterfly common to the region.
France had already intervened militarily several times since CAR, a former French colony, won its independence in 1960.
At the time, French President Francois Hollande said the troops would stay in the country “as long as necessary” but said the operation was “not designed to last.”
Paris, which had already sent troops to Mali in January of that year, watched the situation in CAR deteriorating following the overthrow in March of Francois Bozize by Seleka rebels led by Michel Djotodia.
An initial force of about 1,200 French marines, paratroopers and engineering units was officially sent to back up the AU’s MISCA force, but quickly found themselves on the front line.
Their mandate was to “disarm all militia and other armed groups that have terrorised the population” and the first objective was to secure Bangui and its 4.5 million inhabitants.
Between February to September 2014, combat troops also secured a road link from Bangui to neighbouring Cameroon. In September, UN soldiers from MINUSCA took over from the MISCA troops.
On February 14, 2016, Faustin-Archange Touadera was elected president, capping a chaotic political transition, and three months later, Hollande visited Bangui, declaring that stability “has been restored.”
Elsewhere in the country, however, armed groups continued to plague the population. Former Seleka units are still active and a total disarmament of militia groups appears unlikely.
However, since July 2014 the force has been under growing pressure following the emergence of allegations of child rape by French soldiers deployed in Central African Republic.
French prosecutors opened an investigation, but the allegations did not become public until April 2015. Since then, other reports have emerged about troops’ alleged involvement in sexual attacks and giving children food and sometimes small amounts of money for sexual services.
So far, the Sangaris force is already the subject of three investigations into separate allegations of sexual abuse of children in the central African country.
In June, Paris prosecutors also opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that French troops beat up, or stood by while others beat up two people in CAR.