PARIS (Reuters) – France aims to scale back its military presence in Central African Republic by the end of the year, its defence minister said in a French media interview, as Paris continues to count on forthcoming elections to ease tension in the turbulent African country.
France currently has around 900 troops in the country. That is down from a 2,000-strong force it deployed after widespread violence broke out in 2013 involving Muslim-led rebels and Christian militias, but is well above a pre-crisis force of 300.
“At the end of the year, our objective is to be back at a (troop) level close to what it was before the crisis,” Jean-Yves Le Drian said in an interview with French business weekly Challenges, published on its website on Saturday.
President Francois Hollande said this month that France would be able to pull troops out of the Central African Republic quickly once the country elects a new president.
The African state is due to hold a presidential election run-off next month after a first round on Dec. 30, which observers hope will lead to a transition to democracy after years of conflict.
However, in a setback to that process, the country’s constitutional court on Monday scrapped legislative election results, citing irregularities, while hundreds of people protested in the capital Bangui on Friday, calling for the result of last month’s presidential vote to be annulled as well, claiming irregularities.
France has also been embroiled in allegations of child sex abuse against foreign troops, including French soldiers, in Central African Republic, with the United Nations announcing fresh accusations by children on Friday.
Le Drian has handed over to French prosecutors information received from the U.N. about possible abuse by French soldiers, further to an ongoing investigation into previous allegations, the defence ministry said on Friday.
Central African Republic is one of several countries where the French army is engaged.
Paris is also discussing with Western allies options to curb Islamic State militants in Libya, but Le Drian, when asked whether bombing raids were possible in Libya, said foreign powers should wait to see if a proposed unified government is able to defeat Islamic State by itself.
The European Union’s Sophia sea force operating against migrant traffickers in the Mediterranean could intervene in Libyan waters if the new government requested it, he added.
The French army’s chief of staff told reporters on Friday that his forces were “at the maximum” of their capacities, and that France would have to scale down efforts elsewhere or secure extra funding if they were to engage on a new front.
Le Drian stressed that the government last year granted an additional 3.8 billion euros to the military budget for 2016-2019 as well as an increase in operational forces. But he acknowledged personnel was under strain while waiting for new recruits, whom he said would alleviate the situation in the second half of the year.
(Reporting by Marine Pennetier and Gus Trompiz; Editing by Susan Fenton)