By John Irish
NEW YORK (Reuters) - France's foreign minister said on Monday there was an urgent need to tackle the crisis in the Central African Republic and called for strengthening an African peacekeeping force.
Speaking to reporters at the United Nations, Laurent Fabius warned that a lack of international response risked destabilizing the entire region.
Land-locked, mineral-rich Central African Republic has slipped into chaos since northern Seleka rebels seized the capital Bangui and ousted President Francois Bozize in March. U.N. officials and rights groups say both sides may have committed war crimes.
"It is absolutely urgent to act. We are facing a serious security situation and we don't want to let this serious situation degenerate and through contagion make the situation extremely complicated in the entire region," Fabius said.
Fabius is hosting a summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on September 25 to discuss the crisis, which he said needed to send a clear message.
Former colonial power France - which intervened earlier this year to oust Islamist rebels from another one of its former colonies, Mali - has been reluctant to get directly involved in the crisis. It has urged African nations and the African Union to do their utmost to resolve the crisis among themselves.
But while the African Union plans to deploy a 3,600-strong peacekeeping mission - known as MISCA - in the country, incorporating a regional force of 1,100 soldiers already on the ground, it is unlikely to be operational before 2014.
The African Union has asked financial, logistical and technical support from the United Nations and senior U.N. officials recommended last month that the U.N. Security Council approve this request.
The African Union and United Nations planned to send experts to the Central African Republic to assess exactly what was needed and U.N. diplomats said that on the basis of those reports the Security Council would respond with a resolution.
U.N. envoy to Central African Republic, retired Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye, and U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic both last month signaled to the Security Council that the AU force would not be enough to combat the crisis in the country, which borders six other states.
"We want to pass the message that it is imperative to strengthen the MISCA," Fabius said.
France has a small force in Bangui securing the airport and its local interests. French diplomatic sources said earlier this week Paris would be ready to provide logistical support and increase its troop numbers to 700-750 men if needed.
Michel Djotodia, who swept to power at the head of the rebellion, was officially sworn in as the country's president last month but he has failed to contain waves of looting and killing by gunmen.
Djotodia earlier this month sacked the head of the armed forces after days of clashes with fighters loyal to Bozize killed 100 people.
CAR is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium but decades of instability and the spillover from conflicts in its larger neighbors have left the nation's 4.5 million people mired in cycles of crises.
A mix of local rebellions, banditry, ethnic tensions and spillover of conflicts from neighbors have long undermined efforts to stabilize the landlocked former French colony.
(Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)