This story was updated at 10:25 a.m. on 12/10/13 to reflect new information:
Two French paratroopers have died on combat operations within the Central African Republic, according to a statement from the French president Tuesday morning.
The two soldiers were killed during ongoing fighting in the capital, Bangui, where Christian and Muslim groups continue to square off against one another. These are the first French troop deaths from the U.N.-supported mission that began last week.
“They lost their lives to save many others,” French President Francois Hollande said, according to a statement reported by The Wall Street Journal.
France has committed roughly 1,600 troops to support at least 850 soldiers from Burundi as a part of an African Union coalition.
Hundreds have been killed as a result of the fighting. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced.
President Barack Obama issued a statement to the people of the CAR late Monday while en route to South Africa, where he helped eulogize the late President Nelson Mandela. He referenced Central Africans’ religious diversity and ability to overcome their post-colonial hardships.
“We all deserve to live in peace and dignity,” he said. “Today my message to you is simple: It doesn’t have to be this way.
Obama encouraged citizens to join local religious leaders who are calling for an end to the fighting, and for local authorities to arrest those who continue in violence.
“Show your love for your country by rejecting the violence that is tearing it apart,” he said.
Grant Harris, White House special assistant to the president and senior director for African affairs, cited “shocking and horrific atrocities against innocent civilians” committed by the fighting groups in the CAR.
This story was posted at 4:32 p.m. on 12/09/13:
The U.S. is assisting in the mission “to end the violence, protect civilians, prevent atrocities, provide humanitarian assistance, and help create an environment that allows constitutional and democratic governance to be restored,” Harris said.
The U.S. military will provide support to the French and African Union troops who continue to battle a chaotic uprising in the Central African Republic.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke Monday with his French counterpart, who asked for help in the U.N.-sponsored mission to help quell intense violence between Christian and Muslim groups in the former French colony.
At Hagel's direction, Germany-based U.S. Africa Command will organize transporting AU and French forces from nearby Burundi into the CAR.
"The United States is joining the international community in this effort because of our belief that immediate action is required to avert a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in the Central African Republic," Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog said Monday, "and because of our interest in peace and security in the region."
The U.S. performed a similar role for thousands of French forces that deployed to Mali in early 2013 in response to al-Qaida linked forces that advanced southward from their northern strongholds. America also assisted the French in their failed commando raid into al-Shabab controlled Somali territory in January to rescue a French intelligence officer.
No U.S. forces will remain on the ground in CAR in this latest mission, says Air Force Maj. Rob Firman. Two C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes will fly the mission that is expected to take "a few days."
The airlift is expected to start within 24 hours, Firman says.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said Saturday there is an "urgent need to avoid further deterioration" in CAR.
The U.N. Security Council resolution supporting the mission allows for the use of force for an initial 12-month period and is paid for by a trust fund endorsed by Ban.
The African Union International Support Mission, known by its French acronym MISCA, includes 850 Burundian troops, Firman says.
Nearly 400,000 people have been displaced in CAR and almost 70,000 have fled into neighboring countries, according to the latest U.N. numbers.
Update 12/10/2013: This story has been updated to include new information.