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Bangui, Central African Republic (AFP) June 12, 2014
Since thousands of foreign troops have struggled in vain for more than a year to quell sectarian violence in the Central African Republic, growing numbers of people want the notoriously ragtag army rearmed.
The idea is anathema to the international community, but it is backed by transitional President Catherine Samba Panza amid growing hostility towards the foreign military presence in the impoverished country of 4.6 million people.
African and French peacekeepers are authorised to use force to disarm brutal rival militias, but have so far failed to turn a tide of violence and atrocities that has claimed thousands of lives and caused a quarter of the population, mainly Muslims, to flee their homes.
At the weekend, hundreds of regular soldiers -- minus their weapons -- converged on the Kassai military camp outside the capital Bangui for a weekly parade.
As usual, the scene was happily chaotic, with some soldiers arriving four to a motorcycle, none wearing exactly the same uniform and some sporting basketball tank tops.
"This army is no more than a skeleton, but we are determined and it is now up to the politicians to decide what to do with us," said Lieutenant Alain Taddas. "We want to be rearmed because the people want it, to make this country safe."
Most of the regular Central African Armed Forces (FACA), which numbers nearly 8,000, are based in Bangui. Soldiers became infamous, particularly in the 1990s, for successive mutinies mainly over unpaid wages.
After failing to stop a coup mounted by the mainly Muslim Seleka movement in March 2013, the FACA was summarily disarmed and soldiers stopped receiving their pay.
Many decommissioned soldiers joined mainly Christian vigilante groups set up to go after Seleka members -- predominantly Muslim -- who went rogue despite winning power in Bangui, embarking on a campaign of killing, raping and looting.
The country's Minister of Justice Isabelle Gaudeuille announced on Wednesday that it had requested the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes committed over the past two years, saying the court's intervention would be "indispensible" in prosecuting those who carried out "the most serious of these crimes."
The international community stepped in and removed the Seleka in January this year, while salary payments resumed to FACA soldiers in March.
But the army has remained sidelined from any role in resolving the latest crisis in the unstable former French colony, which lacks a functioning national adminstration after years of coups and misrule.
- People feel 'abandoned' -
On Bangui's streets, many view the peacekeepers with suspicion, seeing the force of more than 5,000 soldiers deployed by the African Union as being too close to the former rebels. They also consider the French contingent of about 2,000 incapable of disarming the rampaging militias respectively drawn mainly from Muslim and Christian communities.
"Given that the UN resolutions on disarming the militias are no longer being applied, the people feel they are being left to their own devices, abandoned," complained Eric Willibyro Sako, one of the organisers of recent protests demanding the rearming of the FACA.
The UN Security Council voted in February to strengthen the peacekeepers' mandate, authorising them to use force amid warnings of a potential genocide. It made disarming the rival sides their central task.
Highlighting the "total breakdown in law and order", the UN resolution also ordered an arms embargo against the country.
However, Samba Panza has been calling for FACA's reinstatement since she took office in January.
"As soon as I was elected, I called for the rearming of our soldiers and our police," she said in an address to the nation in March. "But I received a polite refusal from the United Nations Security Council. I am working every day to convince our outside partners."
The United Nations is reluctant to agree to rearm poorly trained soldiers in a volatile country with a long history of unrest.
But Noel Ngoulo of the University of Bangui says people want the soldiers to be rearmed "because that would reassure them, because they think FACA knows the terrain better and that a country cannot remain for long without an army."
Negotiations have begun. "Dialogue is already open with the United Nations to ease the sanctions and restore our forces' esprit de corps," Prime Minister Andre Nzapayeke told reporters on Saturday.
While police and gendarmes -- paramilitary police -- are being gradually rearmed, the rearming of the FACA will call for more persuasion, said Jean-Jacques Demafouth, the president's adviser on relations with international forces.
"We will try to make the bride prettier by dressing her up," he told AFP, explaining plans to redistribute battalions so that various ethnic and religious communities are better represented.
"We are going to train the soldiers better, and we will ensure that the army takes part in the country's development," Demafouth added.
- Brutal lynching -
But changes will be tricky, for Muslims have deserted the army and the Gbaya -- the ethnic group of Francois Bozize, the president ousted in last year's coup -- are represented in disproportionate numbers.
A brutal lynching on February 5 underscored distrust within the ranks.
Soldiers set upon one of their own, suspecting him of secretly being a Seleka member, shortly after Samba Panza presided over a ceremony to reinstate the army.
General Dominique Trinquand, former head of France's military mission to the United Nations, said the regular soldiers needed "training for the long term".
The army "does not need to act right away," he said, arguing that the police and gendarmes are needed more immediately "because it is the rule of law that needs to be reestablished" in the Central African Republic.
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