Hollande vows French help in restive Central African Republic

Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande paid a lightning visit to restive Central African Republic on Friday for talks with its leaders while drawing down France's military presence.

Hollande's visit to the former French colony is sensitive because of accusations that French peacekeepers sexually abused children in the country.

There are currently three investigations under way into the accusations against the French troops.

"Today, Operation Sangaris comes to an end," Hollande said after meeting President Faustin Archange Touadera, who was elected in a peaceful vote in February seen as a step toward reconciliation after years of sectarian violence.

"I decided (to launch Sangaris) in December 2013 because chaos had unfortunately engulfed the Central African Republic and because massacres were being committed," he said.

The Sangaris military operation, launched to help quell inter-communal violence, is due to end in December this year, after a progressive draw-down.

From a peak of 2,000 troops at the height of the crisis, their number is down to 650, a French aide said. In due course the remaining French forces will join the UN's Minusca peacekeeping operation.

"Our troops are being called to other fronts," he said. "France still faces the threat of terrorism."

However, the leader vowed continued support for Bangui.

"France will always be there," said Hollande, who last visited the country -- one of the poorest on the planet -- in December 2013 and February 2014.

"I have returned now that the transition has succeeded, and stability restored," he said, pledging to ensure international support for the country's development.

Touadera meanwhile said his government would "rise to today's challenges, which are peace, security, national reconciliation and cleaning up the state's finances" in a country rife with corruption.

Hollande visited the flashpoint majority Muslim neighbourhood of PK-5, which was at the epicentre of the deadly fighting that pitted the mainly Christian anti-balaka militia against the Muslim Seleka rebels.

- 'No impunity' -

Hollande said that any French or UN soldiers in Central Africa found guilty of sexual abuse of minors would be held accountable.

"If anyone is found responsible, there will be no impunity," he said.

Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the mother of French photographer Camille Lepage -- who was killed in the Central African Republic in 2014 -- meanwhile urged Hollande to help uncover the circumstances of her death.

"We have agreed that justice must be had, we need to know," he responded.

Hollande is due to travel late Friday to Nigeria for a regional summit focused on fighting the jihadist group Boko Haram.

The summit will also be attended by the United States, Britain and the three neighbouring countries which have also been the target of attacks from the jihadists -- Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people since 2009, according to World Bank figures.