Attacks and fighting in Central African Republic have displaced as many as 400,000 people, many fleeing into the forests or neighboring countries. (Matthieu Alexandre/AFP/Getty Images - Caritas International)

The warnings have become more dire: The Central African Republic “is descending into complete chaos before our eyes,” the U.N. deputy secretary general said this week. France, the country’s former colonial power, pledged Tuesday to send 1,000 troops there after declaring last week that the situation was “on the verge of genocide.”

Something terrible is happening in this country in the middle of Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes, and an unknown number have been killed in attacks over the past several months. Post correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan, based in Nairobi, helps explain the crisis and why world powers are suddenly so concerned.

How did the fighting start?

In March, a rebel alliance called the Seleka marched from the predominantly Muslim north of the country and seized the capital, Bangui. President François Bozizé, who had come to power in a 2003 military coup, was ousted, and rebel leader Michel Djotodia declared himself president.

What happened after that?

(The Washington Post)

According to Human Rights Watch, the Seleka rules “arbitrarily and with complete impunity.” Its forces are accused of attacks on villages, rape and widespread looting. In recent months, self-defense groups, mostly made up of Christians, have been fighting the Seleka and targeting Muslims, provoking revenge attacks. Muslims make up 10 percent to 20 percent of the population in the predominantly Christian country.

What are they fighting about?

Mostly power, control of territory and past grievances. The country also has extensive agricultural and mineral resources. Its main exports are diamonds, timber, coffee and tobacco. It also has reserves of gold and uranium.

What has been the effect on civilians?

Human rights groups say the Seleka has killed many civilians and destroyed hundreds of homes and scores of villages. The attacks and fighting have displaced as many as 400,000 people, many fleeing into the forests or into neighboring countries. Estimating the number of dead has been difficult because much of the violence has occurred in remote areas. Human rights activists also accuse the Christian vigilante groups of committing abuses.

Aren’t U.S. troops in central Africa, aiding the search for Joseph Kony, the warlord who leads the Lord’s Resistance Army?

Yes, and Kony is widely thought to be hiding in the Central African Republic. But he and his band of murderous rebels are not involved in the ongoing crisis. For more than two decades, however, the LRA has killed, maimed and kidnapped villagers across the region.

So the Central African Republic had problems before the coup?

The country has been unstable since its independence from France in 1960. The landlocked nation of about 5 million people is one of the poorest and least-developed in the world. Its recent history has been marred by brutal and corrupt regimes, most installed by coups. Perhaps the most well known was that of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who crowned himself emperor and began a reign of terror that included an alleged massacre of schoolchildren. He was overthrown in 1979 in a military coup backed by French commandos. The cycles of violence have led to a proliferation of weapons in the country.

Is the country on the verge of a genocide?

France has said so, and a special U.N. adviser called the crisis “one of the worst human rights and humanitarian crises of our time.” The United States has been more cautious in its assessments (and has pledged $40 million to strengthen an African Union force in the country, but it has said that U.N. peacekeepers are not yet needed).

Is the international community doing anything?

France’s announcement Tuesday that it will send 1,000 troops to the country to help stem the violence comes amid mounting concern. The force bolsters an existing contingent of 420 French soldiers protecting the airport in the capital. The deployment marks the second time this year that France has dispatched troops to an African nation. In January, France staged a military intervention against radical Islamists who had seized control of northern Mali.

There are 2,500 African troops in the Central African Republic, and there are plans to bolster that force. The U.N. Security Council is considering options to stop the violence.

Will sending in U.N. peacekeepers affect other U.N. missions in Africa?

It could. U.N. officials say that if conditions deteriorate quickly, peacekeepers might be pulled from one of the other U.N. peacekeeping operations in sub-Saharan Africa, including those in Congo, Mali and the Darfur region of Sudan. All these places are gripped by conflict and insurgencies, and the international community could find itself spread thin.