Central African Republic: Interview with Col Basile Sillou, CEMAC peacekeeping force chief of staff

News and Press Release
Originally published
BANGUI, 27 January (IRIN) - The Central African Republic (CAR) government has been fighting supporters of the former army chief of staff, Francois Bozize, since 25 October 2002 when they invaded the capital, Bangui.
Aided by Libyan troops and an armed movement from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bozize's men were pushed out of the capital and withdrew to the north of the country.

Bozize fled from the CAR to Chad in November 2001 to escape arrest, and since then relations between the two countries has been one of mutual suspicion and accusations of support for dissident forces in cross-border attacks.

To stop these cross-border raids and to avert the eruption of conflict between CAR and Chad, the Economic and Monetary Community of Central African States, known by its French acronym CEMAC, set up a 350-man peacekeeping force. Its mandate is also to protect President Ange-Felix Patasse, monitor the CAR-Chad border and to reform the CAR army. In an interview granted IRIN on Saturday, the CEMAC force commander, Col Basile Sillou, talks about the mission.

QUESTION: What are the quotas of each country to the CEMAC Force?

ANSWER: Under the provisions decided by the 2 October 2002 Libreville summit, each country was given a quota. The force currently comprises 146 Gabonese, 126 Congolese [Republic of Congo] and 31 Equatorial Guinean troops, which are the quotas fixed by the Libreville summit. We have not yet reached the fixed number [350 men] as Cameroon and Mali have not yet sent their contingents.

Mali is not a member of the CEMAC, but due to the affinities between the CAR and Malian presidents [Patasse and Amadou Toumani Toure] and what the latter did in the CAR [successful mediation in 1996-97 mutinies], it [Mali] proposed to send a platoon [about 30 men].

As for Cameroon, during the 23-25 October 2002 meeting of the army chiefs of staff of the CEMAC states, it opted to delay its participation in the force due to its problem with Nigeria [over the Bakassi peninsula]. The Cameroonians said they would later participate in the restructuring of the CAR Army. Now that the tension [over Bakassi] has cooled down, I think Cameroon will send a platoon, but I cannot confirm this.

Q: What is the composition of the force's staff?

A: As you know, it is a multinational force with a staff commensurate with the strength of each country's contingent. The force's commander-in-chief is a Gabonese, Gen [Achim Ahmed] Ratanga, and its chief of staff is a Congolese. If one considers the size of the contingents, Congo comes after Gabon. That is how all the small components of the force's staff are constituted.

Q: What kind of weapons is the force equipped with?

A: Without going into many details, I can roughly say that our weapons come from the Libreville stores of Recamp [Renforcement des capacités africaines de maintien de la paix, a French-supported programme which trains and supports African peacekeeping forces]. France has put these weapons at the disposal of the subregion's countries in the framework of peacekeeping operations. The arms are essentially French.

Q: have any aircraft been assigned to this force?

A: We have not envisaged the use of aviation in the current mission.

Q: Who are the partners and what is their contribution?

A: Many donor countries were contacted, but so far only France has kept its promise and is currently supporting the force financially.

Q: It has also been reported that China has granted equipment worth 100 million francs CFA [US $153,846]. Is that correct?

A: I have not been informed about this. I know that China is one of the donors who were contacted and who promised to support the CEMAC force. I am unaware of any Chinese donation.

Q: There are French soldiers among the CEMAC troops. What is their role?

A: As the equipment we use is French, and France being the only country to have disbursed funds for the force, it is quite logical that some French soldiers should assist us on technical matters. Their number varies, depending on our needs on the ground.

Q: One of the force's missions is to monitor the CAR-Chad border. When will the force take on this mission?

A: The CEMAC force was mandated to monitor the securing of the border, not to secure the border. The CAR and Chadian armies must jointly assure the security of the border. Of course, it is impossible to achieve that mission for the moment, as the two armies have not yet organised joint patrols along the border. Despite that, that mission has not been cancelled. It has simply been delayed.

Q: Another mission is to reform the army. How will this be done?

A: During the meeting of the CEMAC states' army chiefs of staff, this question was raised. It was clearly said that this mission would be tackled later, because it necessitated many things. To achieve it successfully, we must first assess the current army's situation, know the current government's policy in defence matters, examine the problem of enlistment and equipment acquisition, as well as the deployment of the forces country-wide. A complex and gigantic mission will be carried out when the heads of state give instructions accordingly. We have not discussed that issue since our arrival here.

Q: Concerning the protection of President Ange-Felix Patasse, how large is the force's scope for manoeuvre?

A: We were mandated to protect the head of the state. We came here to help our CAR brothers and contribute to the return of peace. Those who have bad intentions know that we are soldiers on a mission. When a soldier has a mission, he must fulfil it. This means that if, to defend and protect the head of the state, we must use our weapons, we will do so. The force is small, but it is very well equipped. Moreover, all the CEMAC states which mandated us are behind the force. If someone attacks us, they will have attacked the CEMAC states, and the latter will back the force.

Q: Local newspapers and some opposition leaders have criticised the force, saying that it is just there protect one individual - President Patasse. What is your response to them?

A: When we came we felt that the CAR people warmly welcomed us. I do not think that our mission is only to protect the head of the state. People see our troops patrolling the entire city round the clock. Our patrols aim to protect the population. If a citizen is assaulted, we will not look away. We are here to protect everybody.

Q: Can the force's mandate be revised, taking into account military developments on the ground?

A: It is up to the heads of state who mandated us to answer that question. They are the ones who must decide with sovereign power whether that mandate has to be extended or its implementation be halted.

Q: What kind of cooperation are you getting from the CAR army?

A: The collaboration is excellent. We are in the CAR, we have to collaborate with the [military] authorities that welcomed us. Our missions [the CEMAC force and CAR army] are complementary.

Q: Do you think 350 men will suffice to carry out this immense mission?

A: You have not checked the kind of armament we have. It is not always the size of the force that matters. We are on mission, and we have enough means to achieve it.

Q: What is your assessment of the force's first month of activities?

A: The mission is being carried out normally and there is nothing to deplore. We conduct our patrols and we are positioned in important sites in the city [Bangui], such as the airport and the presidential residence. Everything is going well.


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