Paris - Violence in the Central African Republic is becoming "more serious" as a political deadlock inflames tensions between rival Christians and Muslims, France's defence minister warned as he left for the war-torn country.
A dozen French peacekeeping troops were wounded last week in clashes with armed groups and Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted that efforts to stabilise the country have stalled, six months after the election of a new transitional leader.
"The settlement to all this can only be political, yet politics has broken down," he told AFP Sunday.
The minister said that while there were fewer direct confrontations between the warring groups and French and African peacekeeping forces, "these clashes are becoming more serious".
Le Drian said that transitional CAR president Catherine Samba Panza - a former mayor of the capital Bangui - has not been able to "renew the political process, which has stalled" since she took office in February.
The highly unstable and deeply poor former French colony has been torn by inter-communal violence for more than a year. Widespread bloodshed when the mainly Muslim former rebels of the Seleka alliance took power for 10 months was followed by massacres involving vigilante forces known as "anti-balaka", that emerged mostly from the Christian majority.
Anti-balaka ("anti-machete") forces have hidden among crowds to attack troops of the 2 000-strong French force known as Operation Sangaris.
The violence, mainly carried out against civilians on ethnic and religious grounds, has claimed thousands of lives and displaced about a quarter of the population of some 4.5 million. Much of the country's Muslim population has reportedly fled, with others sheltering in camps.
French troops are operating under a UN mandate alongside some 5 800 soldiers of an international African contingent, Misca, deployed by the African Union with a mandate to provide security, restore stability and protect the population.
In the latest deadly flare-up, the killing of 17 Muslims in a camp at the end of June in the central Bambari region, east of Bangui, led to renewed tit-for-tat clashes that claimed at least 70 lives.
Le Drian said the absence of a clear political outlook had made some armed groups more radical, "because people cannot see a future for the whole of the country".
He planned to talk with Samba Panza about restoring "a security chain" of police, the judiciary and prisons, arguing that "we're dealing more with criminal groups than with soldiers".