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BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — The United Nations took over a regional African peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic on Monday, nine months after sectarian violence erupted that has left at least 5,000 people dead and has forced tens of thousands of Muslims to flee into exile in neighboring countries.
About 1,800 additional peacekeepers and police joined the mission as the United Nations took over, along with some 4,800 African troops and 1,000 international police from the previous mission. But the newly combined force is only about 65 percent of what was authorized by the U.N. Security Council in April.
The U.N. Security Council, human rights groups and others called for the full and speedy deployment of the nearly 12,000-strong force, which diplomats have said won't take place until early 2015.
"The switch from AU to U.N. peacekeepers must be more than a cosmetic change: the swapping green berets for blue helmets. Instead it must serve as a fresh start for the peacekeeping operation in CAR," said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International's campaigns deputy regional director for West and Central Africa.
The Security Council welcomed "the seamless transition of authority" from the African-led force and stressed the importance of accelerating the full deployment of 10,000 military personnel, including 240 observers and 200 staff officers, and 1,800 police.
The peacekeepers face an enormous task: bringing peace to a country the size of Texas with some 4.6 million people that is one of the least developed on the African continent. Some roads have not been repaired since independence from France in 1960 and others are near-inaccessible during the rainy season. The country's vast north was largely anarchic even before the violence erupted and is home to a plethora of rebel groups and armed movements.
The new reinforcements have come from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Morocco and Bangladesh to join peacekeepers from other countries in Central Africa.
The U.N. says it has taken months to solicit contributions from member states and mobilize the force now coming to reinforce the existing African mission.
The U.N. has "worked tirelessly" since the April resolution was passed, said Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary-General, who emphasized that Central African Republic is "an extremely, extremely complicated logistical situation" because it is land-locked with dilapidated roads that date back to independence from France in 1960.
"I think the last thing we have been doing is sitting on our hands, but we've been meeting logistical challenges ... mobilizing troops for a peacekeeping mission takes time," he said last week. "We have to go knock on doors for troops, for equipment, helicopters and in the meantime I think we've been working very actively in the CAR, both on the political end and, of course, on the humanitarian end."
At least 5,204 people have been killed since the sectarian violence erupted last December, according to a tally compiled by The Associated Press. That figure is based on a count of bodies and numbers gathered from survivors, priests, imams and aid workers in more than 50 of the hardest-hit communities.
Civilians are still being killed "at an alarming rate," said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch who conducted a field mission this month on the ground.
"There is no time to lose," he said. "The new U.N. mission urgently needs to get more troops into eastern and central areas and take bold steps to protect civilians from these brutal attacks."
While welcoming a reduction in violence, the council said it remains "seriously concerned" by the continuing widespread human rights violations and abuses in Central African Republic.
It stressed that the U.N. takeover of peacekeeping should support the immediate implementation by all signatories of the July 23 cease-fire agreement and a wider Central African-led political process addressing the underlying causes of the conflict. It called on the transitional government to take concrete action towards an inclusive political dialogue and national reconciliation.
In other developments, the United States announced that it will reopen its embassy in the capital, Bangui. The U.S. suspended operations in Central African Republic and urged Americans to leave the country in December 2012 when the violence erupted.
Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement Monday progress has been made at putting the nation on "a path toward peace and stability."
The handover ceremony was attended by U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous and Babacar Gaye, the head of the new mission.
Pascal Berio, a political science student at the University of Bangui, said Monday's handover ceremony was a reason for hope.
"It underscores that we are not alone and that the international community is there to help us," he said.
His classmate Marthe Kala, though, was less optimistic and said the peacekeepers have a lofty task before them.
"We've already had 10 years of crisis now," she said.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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