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Power visits Central African Republic amid strife

UN ambassador has a message: US is watching

US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power spoke with children in a refugee camp near Bangui’s airport Thursday.

PACOME PABANDJI/AFP/Getty Images

US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power spoke with children in a refugee camp near Bangui’s airport Thursday.

BANGUI, Central African Republic — The US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, landed in this besieged capital early Thursday with what she called a blunt and simple message: The United States is watching.

The trip, one of Power’s first since assuming her role at the United Nations, brings her to a country engulfed in deadly sectarian strife, with the goal of preventing further atrocities. It has raised expectations, and some tough questions. What is the United States willing to do to stop Christians and Muslims here from killing one another, and how much is it willing to spend?

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The United States has not responded to the crisis in Central African Republic with the same vigor as France, the nation’s former colonial power. While France has sent 1,600 troops to help quell the fighting, the United States has made it clear that it has no plans to put boots on the ground, leaving it in a mostly supporting role.

But Power said she had come to Central African Republic because she wanted to see the horror for herself. She is scheduled to meet with government leaders, peacekeepers, aid workers and civilians who survived machete-wielding militias to urge an immediate end to the violence that has alarmed officials around the world.

“To take a plane in here at this stage is very important and very much a sign of the priority the president attaches to events on the ground and, ultimately, stabilization in the Central African Republic,” she said aboard an Air Force plane from Washington.

The visit was all the more noteworthy because the United States has no apparent economic or strategic interests here. It does, however, have a stated interest in staving off another Rwanda — a mission that is particularly resonant for Power, who has built her reputation on alerting the world to mass atrocities. At least 600,000 people have been chased from their homes in this conflict, according to the United Nations. The dead have not been fully counted, but about 500 have been killed in the past month in the capital, Bangui, alone.

Diplomats and human rights workers have praised Power for pushing for greater US involvement in Central African Republic. But it remains to be seen whether she can interest the Obama administration in funding a large, robust, and costly UN peacekeeping mission here, which the UN Security Council has stopped short of authorizing.

“She has been the chief advocate for a stronger US role in dealing with the situation in the Central African Republic, which has led Obama to rapidly scale up the amount of money the Americans are providing,” said Peter Bouckaert, a researcher at Human Rights Watch whose chilling report on the recent violence in the country was released Thursday. “At the same time, going for a United Nations peacekeeping mission is a very expensive venture, and it is a commitment they’re not ready to make at the minute.”

What Power has done so far is leverage her diplomatic bullhorn creatively. She has called the transitional president, Michel Djotodia, twice, most recently Sunday, when she expressed her concern about the ouster of three Cabinet ministers. Djotodia was installed this year by the Seleka, a group of mostly Muslim rebel fighters, after they overthrew the government.

It remains unclear how US officials can prevail on leaders to stop the violence in this vast, forested country. Djotodia is said to have some influence over the Seleka, or alliance, fighters, but their rivals — mostly Christian militias — are loosely organized and spread across the country, many parts of which are beyond the current reach of French and African forces.

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