By Michelle Nichols, Crispin and Dembassa-Kette
UNITED NATIONS/BANGUI (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council authorized on Thursday the creation of a nearly 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic in a bid to end violence between Christians and Muslims that has threatened to spiral into genocide.
The mainly Muslim Seleka seized power a year ago, perpetrating abuses on the majority Christian population that triggered waves of revenge attacks, leading to thousands of deaths and displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
At least 13 people were killed when Christian militia forces, known as the "anti-balaka," attacked a town held by Muslim Seleka rebels in a rural area of Central African Republic earlier this week, residents said on Thursday.
The 15-member Security Council authorized a U.N. force, to be known as MINUSCA, of up to 10,000 troops, 1,800 police and 20 corrections officers. It also authorizes French troops in the landlocked former French colony to support U.N. peacekeepers.
The U.N. operation will assume authority on September 15 from the African Union's 5,600-strong MISCA force, which was deployed in December. The council wants the U.N. force to include "as many MISCA military and police personnel as possible."
"I'm happy for the arrival of the blue helmets because their presence here will give back hope to the population," said sociology student Jean Felix Keinam, 31, in the capital, Bangui. "We have seen the MISCA and (the French troops) try to restore security here, but they have failed."
Bangui shopkeeper Jonas Dekezendi, 42, was less enthusiastic. "These 12,000 blue helmets are going to change nothing. (The French troops) and MISCA came and it changed absolutely nothing - people are still suffering," he said.
Killings have continued between Christians and the increasingly isolated Muslim communities in the impoverished country of 4.6 million people despite the presence of 2,000 French troops and the African Union forces. An 800-strong European Union force is due to start deploying in May.
Top U.N. officials have warned that the violence in the large, sparsely populated country could become genocide.
During a brief visit to Bangui on Saturday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said French and African soldiers serving in the Central African Republic are "overwhelmed" by the "state of anarchy" in the country.
After the vote on Thursday Ban called for more support for the African troops until the U.N. force is operational.
"African Union troops supported by the French troops are doing tremendous work to protect the civilian population, but it's not yet enough," French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters after the Security Council vote on Thursday.
Araud said the U.N. peacekeeping operation would focus on protecting civilians, restoring law and order, supporting humanitarian aid access, monitoring human rights abuses and fighting impunity.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who visited Bangui on Tuesday for the second time, said the violence between Christians and Muslims had brought the Central African Republic "to the edge of disaster."
"Untold horrors continue in small villages throughout the countryside and more than 19,000 Muslims are trapped in the capital, too afraid of anti-balaka forces to leave their hiding places," Power told reporters.
There are concerns about a security vacuum in the coming months following Chad's decision last week to withdraw its 850 troops due to controversy over a series of violent incidents involving its peacekeepers.
"I think the Chadians offered significant solace to Muslims in the Central African Republic so, notwithstanding some of incidents that occurred that caused great concern, there is a loss in seeing these troops depart," Power said.
A U.N. report accused Chadian troops of killing 30 civilians and wounding 300 in an attack on a crowded market last month.
However, the country's withdrawal of its troops does not weaken its commitment or determination to help end the crisis, Chadian U.N. Ambassador Mahamat Zene Cherif told the U.N. Security Council.
Until the U.N. force is in place, Cherif also appealed to the international community for more money and logistical support for African troops in a bid to stop the violence against civilians, particularly the Muslim minority.
"While we wait for the effective deployment of MINUSCA, it is urgent for the international community to take significantly robust measures to put a stop to the massacres and the terrible scenes of lynching which have been perpetrated against the civilian population," Cherif told the Security Council.
The council resolution urges the Central African Republic transitional authorities "to accelerate the preparations in order to hold free, fair, transparent and inclusive presidential and legislative elections no later than February 2015."
General Mohamed Moussa Dhaffane, interim Seleka president, told Reuters on Thursday it was not possible to hold elections by February "because there is a large part of the population which are refugees outside the country."
"We cannot hold elections without these people," he said.
Foreign Minister Toussaint Kongo-Doudou told reporters at the United Nations that while it was not up to the international community to solve the problems in Central African Republic, the country needs help.
"The challenges are enormous, that's why we are very happy that the members of the Security Council have adopted that resolution because the U.N., we believe, is the only partner in the world today who can help us handle this crisis," he said.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Braun in Bangui; editing by G Crosse, James Dalgleish and Phil Berlowitz)