U.S. Ambassador to U.N. Samantha Power on mission to quell deadly sectarian fighting in Central African Republic

Christian "anti-balaka" militiamen -- former members of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) -- take part in a training session on the outskirts of Bangui, Dec. 17, 2013.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power was flying Thursday morning to the Central African Republic (CAR) under tight security. Her unusual trip to the country in the center of the African continent was not announced in advance due to security concerns. The country has been gripped by sectarian violence for months, with French troops on the ground trying to restore order.

Power’s visit is meant to convey strong concern from the U.S. that the violence could accelerate and that the ensuing power vacuum might be taken advantage of by extremist groups.

"The U.S. wants to urgently change the calculus of actors on the ground," Ambassador Power told reporters via a conference call from nearby Abuja on Wednesday. She will urge armed groups to drop their weapons. Power said the violence thus far has been directed almost entirely against civilians and is increasingly sectarian.

While acknowledging that any direct comparison of the conflict in CAR to other wars would be flawed, Power did cite two powerful examples in which the U.S. learned that there are consequences for ignoring African conflicts.

"Somalia taught us what can happen in a failed state and Rwanda showed us what can happen in a deeply divided one," she said.

 Al Qaeda-linked militants found a safe haven in Somalia as the weak central government left a power vacuum filled by clan warfare beginning in the 1990s. The Rwanda example was invoked as a reminder of the genocidal mass slaughter of over half a million people over just 100 days in 1994.

The timing of Ambassador Power's visit is deliberate. It happens on the same day that African Union forces take the lead of a U.N.-backed military operation aimed at halting the violence. In a U.N. Security Council decision this month, French and African Union troops were authorized to use force to protect civilians after predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels and rival Christian groups began killing civilians in Bangui.

Armed Christian militants launched an attack on Bangui in early December, hoping to topple the current administration which is led by former Muslim rebels who seized control of the country only nine months earlier.

The Atrocities Prevention Board -- an Obama administration creation founded by Ambassador Power -- has met several times to brainstorm on how to help avoid mass atrocities in CAR. Thus far, that action has consisted of working with the French government on communications, reaching out to religious communities in CAR and recording a public statement from President Obama.

France has been leading the military operation in CAR, with about 1,000 troops on the ground. The U.S. has supported their mission by airlifting African Union troops into CAR from Burundi. The Obama administration has also allocated $100 million in security aid for African Union forces and wants to provide humanitarian assistance as well. CAR is one of the world's poorest countries.

French President Hollande visited CAR last week after two French soldiers were killed.

  • Margaret Brennan

    Principally assigned to the State Department, Margaret Brennan also serves as a CBS News general assignment correspondent based in Washington, D.C.