The Obama administration's ambassador to the U.N. says this is a pivotal moment for the Central African Republic and time for the international community to take steps to prevent further atrocities there.
Samantha Power, a former journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is well-known as an advocate for humanitarian intervention. How she and the Obama administration handle the conflict in the CAR is a major test of that.
"Many countries on the continent are now scrambling to pull forces together so they can deploy them to ensure that those forces get to the Central African Republic in a timely fashion," she told NPR in an interview in her cabin during a flight to Nigeria. "President Obama has just authorized up to $100 million to support the African Union forces on the ground."
Nigeria is a leading member of the African Union and soon to be member of the U.N. Security Council. During her visit there, Power is discussing ways the country could help speed up the deployment of African Union troops to the Central African Republic.
For its part, the U.S. has already begun airlifting peacekeepers from Burundi to join the French-led African Union mission in the Central African Republic. The U.S. is also providing equipment and training and considering military advisers to help the African troops restore order.
While some experts have described the conflict there as "pre-genocidal," Power calls this "an important prevention moment."
"We know from history that in the early phase of conflict and violence that is motivated by ethnic or religious tensions that there are key moments to change the calculus of individuals on the ground who every day are making decisions about whether they want to take the side of peace or take up arms and begin to target their neighbors," Power said. "Central African Republic is in one of those periods right now where people are making those choices every day."
The latest crisis started in March, when Muslim rebels, known as Seleka, toppled the government and rampaged through villages, burning churches and homes. Christian militias have since committed atrocities against Muslim communities. And the U.N. estimates that the conflict has affected half the population.
Leading aid organization Doctors Without Borders, also known by the French initialism of its name, MSF, blasted the United Nations recently for failing to respond quickly enough. Sylvain Groulx, who runs the MSF office in Bangui, the capital, says the U.N. has been too timid.
"There was a period of time after the rebel coalition arrived at the doors of Bangui — that for six months there was no U.N. agency outside of Bangui. That was deplorable," Groulx says. "All during this time while they were evacuated outside the country or held up in their compounds, we continued doing the work."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York this week that the U.N. is trying now to ramp up aid efforts.
"Because of the very dire and dangerous security situation, it was very difficult in some cases to deliver, and the government is not functioning," he said. "This transitional government is not property functioning."
U.S. officials say they are hopeful that the African troops can open aid corridors to reach hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced since March. Power has spoken with the country's coup leader to urge him to get the Central Africa Republic on the path of reconciliation and the road to elections.
"Central African Republic is not a place that has seen mass atrocities committed by one religious community against another in the past," she said. "There have been some interfaith tensions — but what we have seen in recent months since a military takeover of the government are atrocities on religious grounds."