On Friday morning, from Ämari air base, the Estonian infantry platoon is flown off towards Central African Republic for four months. The initial task for the mission in Bangui, the capital, is to protect the EUFOR base.
45 servicemen will be flown to Bangui by a Boeing C-17 in joint ownership of NATO member states. The other six of the unit led by contingent commander Lieutenant Colonel Sten Allik have already been in CAR since Tuesday last week.
As described by Lieut. Col. Allik, by now the Estonians have acquainted themselves with the area of their responsibility in Bangui and considered how to guarantee logistical support of the contingent. As of today, 150 EU soldiers have reached the crisis area; Estonians being the first non-French unit to join the mission.
«During May and June, Latvian, Spanish, and Georgian units will join up. Plus staff officers from 12 EU member states,» said Lieut. Col. Allik. The 800-member EU contingent ought to reach peak capacity by mid-June.
«To begin with, the future EUFOR base area near airport will be taken under control; this will be the first task for the Estonian contingent. Operations on our area of responsibility will commence in the middle of May, after acclimatisation,» explained Lieut. Col. Allik. On the territory, the 35-member combat unit of Scoutsbattalion, mounted on four SISU armoured vehicles, will be performing patrol tasks and manning posts.
Also, EUFOR troops in Bangui will assume responsibility for security at M’Poko airport, that the French troops which have stood watch there for a year might move on to conflict areas outside the capital. During the mission, the tasks of the Estonians will rotate; it is not excluded that they would have to secure paths for humanitarian aid, or act as strike teams.
The broader goal for the half-year EU mission is to strengthen the forces of 6,000 African Union and 2,000 French soldiers in avoiding violence till 12,000 UN peacekeepers will arrive in mid-September.
At the end of April, the French Major General Philippe Pontiès in charge of the European mission told the media that he wants to see operation of investigative bodies, prisons, and the court system in Bangui, so these areas would serve as examples to the rest of the country.
«Our aim is to leave behind two sectors where the situation is safe, freedom of movement secured, and economic activity restored. As these conditions have been created, we will pull out,» promised Maj. Gen. Pontiès.
According to experts, though, there is little hope the above would be achieved in such a short time. EUFOR may indeed take its troops out of Bangui in six months; still, police tasks and the training of local power structures will carry over into next year.
As assured by Riigikogu National Defence Committee chairman Mati Raidma, the Estonian infantry platoon mandate in Bangui lasts till August 31st; and, even though the operation was postponed, lengthening of the mandate has not been discussed. After the soldiers have returned, Defence Forces may in case of need invest up to five staff officers in CAR, till the end of this year.
«I don’t see too much of a problem to complement the Riigikogu decision, should the need arise; but that would have to be within the framework of the EU mission,» thinks Mr Raidma. In other words, should the EUFOR command submit an application, the infantry platoon’s mandate may be prolonged by up to a couple of weeks. A longer stay, however, would require the preparation of a second rotation of servicemen.
«That will surely be weighed; but if and how it will be answered, that’s another matter. After half a year, the new direction for Europeans will probably not be direct peacekeeping, but rather supporting and training of African states involved in the UN mission. That will be another new mission which may come up to be discussed at the end of the year, or in next year,» noted Mr Raidma.
Bloodshed between Seleka Muslim rebels and the Christians’ Anti-balaka groups has over these past weeks been withdrawn from the capital Bangui, as the Muslims have fled the city or escorted out of the country.
In rural areas, however, ethnic cleansing is taking a bloodier turn; during the past ten days, over a hundred people have lost their lives in tribal violence. As humanitarian catastrophe is deepening in the areas with nonexistent state authority, rebels are becoming more extreme towards peacekeepers as well.
This Monday, French peacekeepers came under attack by 40 heavily armed rebels 400 kilometres North of Bangui, forced to call for air cover. The shootout ended with seven rebels dead.