PARIS, Feb 25- The United Nations on Tuesday sounded alarm over a potential new bloodbath in the Central African Republic as France prepared to extend the stay of its troops in its troubled former colony.
The UN’s refugee body said more than 15,000 people were surrounded and under threat of armed attack in locations in the northwest and southwest of the country.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva that the vulnerable mainly members of the minority Muslim community were “at very high risk of attack” and urgently needed better security in the form of more international peacekeepers.
His warning came as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius defended his country’s military intervention in its former colony, saying there would have been a genocide if France had not deployed its force in December.
The claim came ahead of a debate in the French Parliament on extending the military operation in a country which has been torn apart by bloody sectarian strife.
Despite misgivings over the scale, duration and goals of the operation among some lawmakers, both houses of parliament were expected to approve an extension of the French force’s mandate, which is currently due to expire in April.
“If the Operation Sangaris had not been launched, the CAR would today be in a genocide situation,” Fabius said on France 2 television.
“The French were right to intervene. We did it with the Africans of MISCA (the African Union force) and now the Europeans are coming to help us.”
The number of French peacekeepers on the ground is being increased from 1,600 to 2,000 to support a 6,000-strong African Union force.
The European Union has pledged to deploy a further 1,000 troops although it remains unclear which countries will be providing them or when they will arrive in the CAR.
The UNHCR’s Edwards said far more troops were needed to halt the cycle of violence.
“Their numbers are far too low considering the size of the country and the scope of the crisis,” he said.
– ‘Country still on fire’ –
CAR descended into chaos last March after mostly Muslim rebels overthrew the government, initiating a spiral of sectarian bloodletting.
That has yet to be stemmed but opinions differ over whether the situation is improving or deteriorating.
The head of Sangaris, General Francisco Soriano, said on Monday that the French intervention had resulted in a huge reduction in violence and denied allegations by Amnesty International that ethnic cleansing was taking place.
He however admitted that some Muslims “are scared and some have been displaced”.
Opposition lawmakers in France are increasingly vocal in their criticism of the country’s intervention, although that was not expected to prevent them from approving an extension of the force’s mandate.
“Nothing has been resolved, the country is still on fire,” said Eric Woerth, a former minister from the centre-right UMP party of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
“We have avoided a bloodbath, a massacre,” Woerth said. “But there is state, no judiciary, no police, no schools there’s nothing left.”
Another former UMP minister Pierre Lellouche said he was tempted to vote against the extension if the government did not outline a clear exit strategy.
“We have underestimated the degree of violence,” he said. “There are arms everywhere in Bangui and Chinese-made grenades are being sold at 35 centimes (50 cents) in the markets,” he said.
“Our soldiers are in an impossible situation.”
CAR’s interim President, Catherine Samba Panza, has called for international troops to remain in the country until elections due by March 2015.
The Muslim minority has been blamed by many Christians for the violence that followed the March 2013 coup which saw Michel Djotodia become the country’s first Muslim leader.
His regional peers forced him to step down in January and sent in peacekeepers to support the French effort but Christian dominated vigilantes known as anti-balaka are proving difficult to rein in. “Atrocities have become frequent,” the UNHCR’s Edwards said Tuesday.
Relief organisations have warned that the flight of Muslims, who controlled a large share of trade and farming, could exacerbate a major food crisis in one of the world’s poorest countries.