UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council on Thursday unanimously approved a nearly 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force for Central African Republic, which has been torn by mounting violence between Christians and Muslims.
The 10,000 U.N. troops and 1,800 police will take over from 5,000 African Union soldiers — but not until Sept. 15.
A separate 2,000-strong French force in the Central African Republic was authorized to use "all necessary means" to support the new U.N. force.
Central African Republic has been in chaos since a March 2013 coup, when mostly Muslim rebels seized power and launched a brutal regime. Christian militiamen attacked rebel strongholds in early December. As the rebel government crumbled in January, the Christian militiamen stepped up the violence, forcing tens of thousands of Muslims to flee.
France, the country's former colonial power, took the lead in mobilizing international support to address the crisis but its ambassador, Gerard Araud, said the security situation remains volatile.
"African Union troops supported by the French troops are doing tremendous work to protect the civilian population but it's not yet enough," Araud said after the vote. "The resolution we have just adopted is a key turning point."
Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, Central African Republic's foreign minister, who urged the council last month to send U.N. peacekeepers, thanked members for adopting the resolution, saying it "lays the foundation for a solution and a way out of the crisis."
The resolution expresses serious concern at multiple violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed by both former Seleka elements and anti-Balaka militia including killings, torture and sexual violence against women and children.
It "demands that all militias and armed groups put aside their arms, cease all forms of violence and destabilizing activities immediately and release children from their ranks."
The Security Council wanted a strong mandate and the resolution authorizes the new U.N. force to protect civilians and support the disarmament of combatants and the restoration of peace and law and order. It also authorizes the mission to help investigate violations of human rights and humanitarian law by armed groups and arrest alleged perpetrators.
While U.N. peacekeepers and police will not take over until Sept. 15, the resolution immediately establishes the U.N. mission, to be known as MINUSCA. It will take over all activities of the U.N. political office, including supporting the country's political transition.
The resolution urges the transitional authorities to accelerate preparations for free and fair elections no later than February 2015.
With the establishment of MINUSCA, the African Union force on the ground will receive logistical support from the United Nations. Many of its members are likely to become part of the new U.N. force after being checked to ensure they meet U.N. standards.
Philippe Bolopion, United Nations director for Human Rights Watch, urged the U.N. and member states to make the U.N. force a reality on the ground quickly, "including by providing carefully vetted troops, so the U.N. mission itself does not become embroiled in any allegations of abuses."
"This resolution doesn't mean that the U.N. cavalry is going to roll in and save the day," he warned.
In the coming months before U.N. troops deploy, he urged all countries, especially the European Union and African Union, "to do everything in their power to bolster peacekeeping capacities on the ground, protect CAR's besieged Muslim minority, and contribute to the tragically underfunded humanitarian effort."
On the streets of the Central African Republic's capital, Bangui, there was a mixed reaction to the approval of a U.N. force.
Cyrius Zemangui-Kette, 25, who is unemployed, said U.N. troops should have been sent in long ago, but the international community dragged its feet and now things have gotten worse.
"They say they'll arrive in September," he said. "Until then, lots of Central Africans will continue to die, so who are they coming to save?"
Youssouf Adam, 45, a Muslim trader, praised the U.N. deployment but said there were other ways to resolve the crisis.
"If the International Criminal Court, for example, starts to identify the perpetrators of crimes and arrests them, that could worry the perpetrators and give a feeling of justice to the victims who would agree to lower the tensions," he said. "We also have to promote cohesion between the communities that are hostile."
Associated Press Writer Hippolyte Marboua contributed to this report from Bangui, Central African Republic .