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The commander of French troops in the Central African Republic on Monday accused a militia known as the anti-balaka of being the country's "main enemy of peace" to be treated as outlaws and thugs.
The mainly Christian vigilantes have been accused of brutal attacks against Muslims after the ouster of president Francois Bozize in March 2013 by mainly Muslim rebels led by Michel Djotodia, who was himself forced out last month after failing to end the sectarian violence.
"Those who call themselves 'anti-balaka' have become the main enemy of peace in the Central African Republic," General Francisco Soriano said in a meeting in Bangui with the impoverished country's religious leaders, accusing the militia of inciting violence by "stigmatising" certain areas as Muslim.
The remarks came the day after a member of the country's transitional parliament, Jean-Emmanuel Ndjaroua, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in the capital blamed on the anti-balaka.
Ndjaroua had condemned violence against the Muslim residents of his district before parliament on Saturday.
He was among a dozen people killed in sectarian clashes since Friday in the Central African capital.
The ongoing violence has prompted thousands of minority Muslims to flee fearing attacks at a time when the country's judicial system is paralysed.
"It is impunity that drives this cycle of violence," said lawmaker Fernand Mande Ndjapou. "Someone kills a member of your family but the killers are not worried at all."
General Soriano told AFP that nothing was known about the anti-balaka's chain of command, its leader or its political message.
Soriano said he would not garrison the militia members as suggested by its self-styled "political coordinator", Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, because this would "give them a legitimacy they don't have and give them the possibility to become a force they're not".
"There will be no cantonment, they will rather be chased away as outlaws and thugs," he added.
Anti-balaka's 'liberating role'
Ngaissona has criticised the new government's "ingratitude" for sidelining his forces.
"They have no memory, we are the ones who saved them," Ngaissona told AFP in his stronghold of Boy-Rabe, a neighbourhood in the north of Bangui.
Ngaissona, who was a minister in the government that was ousted last year as well as head of the country's football federation, defended the group's actions.
"For several months, the international community did nothing. Nobody told Djotodia and his mercenaries to stop. So, in July, the people rose up.
"There should be a recognition of anti-balaka's role in liberating the people of Central Africa."
Ngaissona also criticised the new president, Catherine Samba Panza, who was appointed on January 20, for failing to honour a promise to appoint him or other anti-balaka to the transitional government.
"She is hated today as a result of her government and cabinet."
Ngaissona described the ongoing violence against Muslims as a "settling of scores" and blamed abuses on "rogue thugs".
He acknowledges that he has "judicial problems" -- he was incarcerated in the early 2000s for corruption and remains subject to several ongoing investigations -- but says this is just an excuse to keep him out of power.
Also Monday, EU foreign ministers formally approved an EU military mission to the former French colony, with some 500 troops to be sent to help 1,600 French and 5,500 African Union forces already deployed.
They are expected to be deployed in Bangui and provide security at the airport, freeing up French soldiers of an operation codenamed Sangaris that was launched in early December.
Don't call them 'Christian'
Bangui Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga meanwhile called on the media not to refer to the vigilantes as "Christian militias".
"In the 1990s, village militias protected people from highwaymen," he said. "Call them self-defence militias, village militias but please spare us the word 'Christian'" in this context.
"Muslims are not the only ones suffering from the anti-balaka. We have all become victims," he added.
The anti-balaka include many former regular soldiers as well as supporters of Bozize, the ex-president who was ousted last year after 10 years in power.
But in Bangui most of them operate in small autonomous bands, mainly engaged in looting.