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A brief French intervention in the Central African Republic? Maybe not. (+video)

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(Read caption) Two French soldiers were killed in overnight fighting in the Central African Republic, France's first casualties in an operation to restore stability in its former colony. Much of the wide-scale violence that has killed hundreds in the last week has eased but Reuters reporters in Bangui saw a mosque set on fire, houses looted and cars torched on Tuesday. Residents reported several lynchings overnight too. The country has descended into chaos since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in March. Months of looting, raping and killing since has brought reprisals by Christian militias. Michel Djotodia, Seleka leader-turned interim president, has lost control of his loose band of fighters, which includes many from Sudan and Chad.

When France announced deployment of 1,600 soldiers to a former colony last week, President François Hollande promised the intervention would be quick and easy. The Central African Republic, after all, has no terrorists, he said, unlike in Mali, where France intervened in January.

In reality, however, CAR could turn into a potential quagmire. Driving home that possibility is the fact that two soldiers have already been killed, France confirmed this morning.

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President Hollande expressed his “deep respect” for the soldiers, who were killed in a clash near the Bangui airport, in a statement issued by his office. The statement added that he “renews his full support for French forces alongside African forces as they restore security in the Central African Republic, protect the population, and guarantee access to humanitarian aid.”

Mr. Hollande, conscious of France's colonial footprint, said he has engaged in response to a humanitarian crisis, after Muslim rebels ousted the president in March. Since then, the Christian-majority country has been mired in fighting between Muslims and Christians that has gotten severe enough to attract the world's attention.

Hollande said he expected the operation to last just four to six months, adding that it would be simpler than France's Mali operation, begun in January, because in CAR there are no terrorists like the Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Mali. Sangari, the name chosen for the operation, refers to a red Central African butterfly with a short lifespan.

Some have called the government's timeline into question, however. Gerard Longuet, a former French defense minister, said on Radio France International Tuesday that he approved of the decision to deploy troops to CAR but that the complicated intervention would span well beyond four to six months.

Hollande said over the weekend that in economic terms the intervention wouldn't cost France, as it is operating under a UN-mandated peacekeeping mission. And he expressed hope that EU partners would provide more than just logistical support.

France has been a leader in pushing for more defense integration in Europe that would see countries acting together in these types of conflicts. The topic will be on the agenda of a European Council meeting on Dec. 19. But support for deep defense integration is low in the EU; France took the the lone lead in Mali.

The larger aim in CAR is  not for Europe to take over but to bolster an African force that would be on the frontlines. The African Union is to boost its existing peacekeeping mission to 6,000 soldiers.

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But the French deaths last night, in direct combat, could undermine the argument that France will move toward a supporting role – or be largely gone by summer. 

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