By John Irish and Daniel Flynn
PARIS/DAKAR (Reuters) - When France sent troops to halt violence between Christians and Muslims in Central African Republic, commanders named the mission Sangaris after a local butterfly to reflect its short life. Three months later, it is clear they badly miscalculated.
Buoyed by a swift victory in last year's war against Islamists in Mali, France's military predicted six months would be enough to quell sectarian conflict in Central African Republic, which began in March when Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the majority Christian country.
Some defense ministry officials said in private that a show of French force would be enough to restore order and no shots need be fired. With its military budget stretched by Mali, Paris gambled on sending a small force of just 1,600 men.
Now, with the country sliding into what the top U.N. human rights official termed 'ethnic-religious cleansing', as Muslims flee northward to escape vicious reprisals by Christian militia, France faces a long fight with scant support from Western allies to stop the nation of 4.5 million people splitting in two.
France's parliament is due to vote on extending Sangaris on Tuesday, but officials say Paris has already accepted its troops will stay at least until elections due by February next year, at the request of Interim President Catherine Samba Panza.
"It will take longer than expected because the level of hatred and violence is worse than we had imagined," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted last week. "No-one can accept partition. It must be stopped."
More than 1 million people have already been displaced and tens of thousands killed according to Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch.
Many in France wonder what their troops are doing caught in the middle. Polls show 60 percent of French question the need to intervene in a nation long regarded as a remote and chaotic backwater, piling pressure on President Francois Hollande, whose ratings are already at record lows.
While in Mali's desert war air power played a decisive role, military experts say in the warren-like backstreets of Central African Republic's capital Bangui and the thick bush of the country's interior what is needed are more boots on the ground.
Responding to international outcry at a series of massacres, France deployed 400 more troops last week to boost its contingent, which is supporting a 6,000-strong African Union peacekeeping mission.
Samba Panza, a former Bangui mayor who took office when Seleka's leader was forced to step down last month, admits her penniless government is powerless to halt attacks on Muslims.
Military experts now warn of 'mission creep', with France obliged to stay until a stable government is established in a nation dogged by coups and conflicts since independence in 1960.
Former Prime Minister Anicet Dologuele, a candidate for a presidential election due next year, said France could have avoided the crisis by intervening as soon as Seleka took power.
"It's not too late, but France or other forces cannot just help restore security and then leave," he told Reuters. "They must stay for the long-term for the hard rebuilding work."
Hollande wants France to shed its reputation as "Africa's policeman" but other Western powers appear reluctant to help shoulder the task.
President Barack Obama, who feted Hollande during a state visit to the United States this month, said France's leadership in Africa was a key part of their resurgent relationship.
France is lobbying hard for the United Nations to deploy peacekeepers by the summer. It has won over regional power broker Chad, which holds a rotating seat on the Security Council and had originally called for an African solution.
A U.N. resolution is expected in late March, but resources are scarce. Member states have so far provided only half the troops for a planned 12,000-strong mission in Mali, and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned any deployment in Central African Republic would take up to six months to organize.
On Thursday, he called for a bridging force of 3,000 extra men and at least $38 million in funding for the African mission, which would form the backbone of a future U.N. force with a robust mandate to neutralize armed groups.
Washington, which has already given $100 million in aid and strongly denounced the atrocities in Central African Republic, has reservations about funding another U.N. force in Africa. A U.S. budget bill last month gave no funds to the Mali mission.
"There is a lack of interest," said one Western diplomat. "Central African Republic is not strategic. It's in the middle of nowhere, and a mission of 10,000 men costs $800 million."
To save costs, the United Nations could reallocate troops from a 10,000-strong mission in Ivory Coast, whose mandate comes up for renewal in July amid an easing in tensions, experts say.
In Europe, senior French diplomats have shuttled between capitals seeking troop commitments, but major players such as Germany and Britain have proved reluctant. EU diplomats say around a third of the 1,000 soldiers so far pledged by Europe will actually be French.
Spain and Portugal may provide police contingents as part of the 3,000-strong bridging force, diplomats say, which would be better trained for dealing with urban unrest than would armed forces.
CALLS FOR A SURGE
The persistent attacks on Muslims have stirred memories of France's Operation Turquoise during Rwanda's 1994 genocide, when Paris was accused of intervening too late to halt the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Retired General Henri Pinard Legry, who served in Central African Republic and now heads the French Army Support Association (ASAF), called for an immediate surge in the French deployment to up to 5,000 men to break the cycle of violence.
"It's up to the politicians to assume their responsibility," said Pinard Legry, who said French troops were haunted by unfair criticism of Rwanda. "This has been a political calculation that is putting in danger France's military credibility."
Part of the challenge for France is that the 'anti-balaka' Christian militia lacks a command structure. It is a loose grouping of supporters of ousted President Francois Bozize, members of the armed forces, and Christians out for revenge.
Some of its fighters have been incorporated into the army, raising fears of future atrocities. Outside a military ceremony attended by Interim President Samba Panza this month, uniformed soldiers beat to death a Muslim man.
In Muslim districts of Bangui like PK5 and Miskine, mosques have been pulled down, houses burnt to the ground and stores looted by Christian mobs pledging to rid the country of Muslims.
French commanders, who lost two soldiers in the first days of the mission, adopted a cautious approach to deploying troops, which angered Muslims who felt unprotected after Seleka was disarmed by peacekeeping forces.
"The French failed in their mission. People killed Muslim civilians before their eyes without response. They looted shops in front of them," said Al Mensour, a student in Bangui.
Violence has eased in recent days in the capital as the Muslim population has dwindled. French and AU troops have meanwhile deployed in the interior, securing the main road to Cameroon and allowing aid convoys to reach Bangui.
Towns with large Islamic populations, like Mbaiki in the south or Bossangoa in the northwest, have emptied as Muslims have fled to the northeast, creating a de facto division of the country that many Muslims and Seleka leaders openly support.
"After all these reprisals, for me the only solution for peace in this country is partition," said Mahamed Hissene, a Muslim trader in Bangui. "Without that there will be no peace."
The attacks on Muslims are making ripples in the wider Muslim world. Palestinians organized a protest in the Gaza Strip last week, while the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) decided to urgently dispatch a fact-finding mission.
Some observers fear a backlash from the Muslim enclave in the northeast, where peacekeepers have yet to deploy, inspired or even aided by Islamist groups in nearby Nigeria and Mali.
"The religious nature of the conflict can only inspire more radicalism," said Thierry Vircoulon, project director for Central Africa at International Crisis Group.
(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Media Coulibaly in Bangui; Editing by Will Waterman)