The US will help fly African Union peacekeeping troops to the Central African Republic as part of a French-led intervention. President Obama has urged calm in the country that has been in turmoil since a March coup.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered US forces "to begin transporting forces from Burundi to the Central African Republic, in coordination with France," his spokesman said in a statement Monday.
Hagel, who is in Qatar on a tour of the region, made the decision after speaking by phone with French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Sunday, who requested "limited" US military assistance to support the international effort, spokesman Carl Woog said.
"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, and because of our interest in peace and security in the region," he said adding that the Pentagon will be evaluating what other US resources might be available if additional requests for assistance are made.
On Thursday, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution allowing French and African Union (AU) troops to use force if necessary to protect civilian lives in the country. The number of troops to be sent was increased from 600 to 1,600 following the surge in violence.
In addition to the French troops on the ground, the AU plans to increase a regional force to 6,000 troops, up from 3,600.
Obama urges calm
The order comes just hours before President Barack Obama recorded an audio message urging calm in the Central African Republic telling citizens they have the power "to choose a different path" than violence.
Muslim and Christian leaders "are calling for calm and peace. I call on the transitional government to join these voices and to arrest those who are committing crimes," Obama said, adding that the US will support the efforts of African countries and the French to restore security and protect civilians.
The former French colony has seen months of unrest since the mainly Muslim-led uprising which has led to tit-for-tat sectarian violence with the nation's Christian majority. The country's interim president and former rebel leader, Michel Djotodia, is accused of failing to keep his predominantly Muslim militia under control, allowing them to prey upon the majority Christian population.
The UN estimates that 400,000 people have been displaced in the fighting, with 68,000 fleeing to neighboring countries.
France's military deployment marks its second major African operation this year, following its invention in Mali to oust al Qaeda-linked rebels from the country's unruly north.
The US offered similar limited assistance during the intervention in Mali, providing cargo aircraft and sharing intelligence with their allies.
hc/av (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)