France begins military aid

The French government has posted an army general to the Central African Republic's (CAR) presidency to oversee Paris's military aid and the training of the army of its former colony, state-owned Television Centrafricaine reported on Monday.

It said the French ambassador, Jean-Pierre Destouesse, introduced Gen Perez to the CAR leader, Francois Bozize, on Monday.

"General Perez is here with all the needed means to work until the end of 2004," Destouesse said.

This marks the first concrete step France has taken to fulfil its promise to restructure, re-equip and train the army. During his visit to the CAR on 29 July, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said Paris would complete this task for three army battalions and 30 gendarmerie units before December.

Destouesse said the decision to aid the country in this way had been motivated by the wish that elections scheduled for the second half of 2004 be held in a secure atmosphere. He added that France had already ordered equipment for the army and gendarmerie and selected the military instructors for the task. He said the French military base in Libreville, capital of Gabon, would contribute to the army reform.

Weakened by the repeated mutinies and coups since 1996, the CAR army is unable to secure the country's entire 623,000 sq km of territory.

"We are now under external protection," Abel Goumba, the prime minister, said on 26 September during his presentation to the ongoing national political reconciliation talks.

France has 300 soldiers in Bangui, while those of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central African States (CEMAC) has 380 peacekeepers, with the mission to secure Bangui and other major towns. The CEMAC force is supported entirely by France.