By the time you read this, Samantha Power will be in the Central African Republic .

America’s foremost scholar-cum-diplomat on mass atrocities and genocide is landing into what a top UN official has called a pre-genocide situation. Yesterday, other UN officials said at least 500 people were killed in fighting in Bangui. Almost all of them were civilians targeted for their religious affiliation.  An untold number of people have been killed and maimed outside the city. 700,000 people have been displaced.

“Somalia taught us what can happen in a failed stated. Rwanda has showed us what can happen in a deeply divided one,” Ambassador Power said on a conference call with reporters ahead of her trip. “The people of CAR are in profound danger.”

Power is in Bangui to meet personally with transitional president Michel Djotodia, who seized power in a rebellion in March. They’ve spoken on the phone twice and Power emphasized that she believes he bears primary responsibility to protect civilians. “The transitional leadership of CAR must itself step up,” she said. “It must heal the wounds and rebuild this country which has been shattered with violence and fear. ”

She is also meeting with religious and civic leaders to support their efforts to tame brooding sectarian tensions that threaten to plunge CAR deeper into crisis.  “Our goal is to change the calculus of people on the ground,” she said.

Her trip coincides with the formal launch of an African Union-lead peacekeeping force, mandated by the Security Council to protect civilians and help restore law and order. The force will have a maximum strength of 6,000 troops, but it could take some months before it reaches that size. In the meantime, about 1,000 French troops and about 3,000 African troops are trying to keep a lid on the conflict as best they can.

A key question going into the next year is whether or not these forces are able to prevent mass atrocities from being committed in CAR. The fact that America’s leading expert on such matters is invoking Rwanda and Somalia ought to shock the world is a chilling reminder of how close CAR is to descending into ethnic cleansing, or even genocide.

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