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PARIS – France is alone again on an unwieldy mission in Africa and appears to be pushing reluctant European allies to cough up troops and resources. Not for the first time, EU countries are expressing unconditional moral support — but little else.
As chaos descended on Central African Republic and violence between Muslim rebels and Christian militias escalated, France quickly ramped up its force in its former colony this month.
But suddenly, it appears France has realized the mammoth size of the task in front of it: policing a country as large as its own with a mere 1,600 troops, wading into sectarian urban warfare and persuading residents they'll be protected if they lay down their arms.
President Francois Hollande has pleaded with its EU partners in the last week to offer up boots on the ground, saying his country cannot alone shoulder the responsibility of maintaining peace and security in Africa, whose stability is important for all Europeans.
France is so desperate that the foreign minister announced that help was on the way, only to have several countries deny they'd be sending troops. French media reported Belgium had agreed to send 150 soldiers, but Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo told reporters that the country was only sending two transport planes and "for the moment, there is nothing else."
Germany has raised the idea of sending a medevac plane, but Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday she had flatly refused to send troops. Britain and Poland also ruled out sending soldiers, though Poland is offering a transport plane with crew.
Hollande said he had persuaded other leaders at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday to agree to a rethink of how the bloc funds its overseas operations, and more pressingly, on whether to authorize such an operation for the Central African Republic.
That could lighten France's financial burden, but it would still be up to separate countries to decide whether they want to send troops or aid. Little moves swiftly in the 28-member bloc, where many important decisions require unanimity, and all France has gotten is a commitment from other countries to talk about it at a foreign ministers' meeting in January.
France also ran into reluctance from its allies in Mali, where its troops intervened in January to push back a rapid advance of al-Qaida-linked fighters toward the capital. With fears that the country could become a base for international terrorism, France deployed first and asked for help later. Little beyond trainers for African troops and logistical support was forthcoming from the U.S. and its European partners.
There has been a distinct note of pique from French officials, who seem dismayed to find themselves once again on their own. Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French radio on Thursday that he wants the "maximum" number of troops from EU countries.
But beyond its irritation, France is also facing a significantly stickier task in Central African Republic that makes it that much more difficult to handle on its own.
"This is a completely different, far messier, chaotic situation" than in its intervention in Mali, said Richard Downie, the deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Everyone seemed to be armed, people are fighting each other, there's no kind of good guys and bad guys here that are easy to identify and isolate."
"Maybe France has bitten off a bit more than they can chew," he said.
Downie said it's possible that France's success in Mali made them over-confident, though even that widely praised mission is likely to drag on. It's also possible that the French didn't realize quite how bad things were in Central African Republic.
"Information out of countries like CAR is incredibly patchy and sketchy," he said. "Maybe they were caught somewhat unawares when they arrived on the ground at just how fluid and how difficult this situation was."
At the EU summit, Hollande said France wasn't asking its European partners to deploy combat units, but to take on secondary tasks, such as assuring security at the airport in Bangui, the capital, or operating hospitals and other humanitarian facilities.
The bloc coming to the aid of the poor, war-torn nation would constitute a "beautiful symbol," he insisted.
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Cassandra Vinograd in London, Raf Casert and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.