The Central African Republic (CAR) is "close to being a failed state" and threatens to spread chaos in the heart of the continent, UN officials have warned.
The security council heard that CAR, plunged into anarchy by a coup five months ago, could become a haven for Islamist extremist groups and Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army.
In March, rebel groups known as Séléka came together to overthrow long-time president François Bozizé. Violence has surged since then, with reports of killings and widespread looting, rape, kidnapping and torture. The security council has described the situation as "a total breakdown of law and order".
Valerie Amos, the UN's humanitarian chief, called on the security council to take swift action to restore security and end the suffering of millions. "Over the past months, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated dramatically and has shifted from being a long-term crisis of poverty and chronic vulnerability to a complex emergency characterised by violence, acute needs and grave protection issues," she said.
"The failure to act now could not only prolong and exacerbate the appalling conditions the people of the Central African Republic have had to endure, but could also see the crisis spread beyond its borders and throughout a region already facing enormous challenges."
The country borders six others.
The turmoil has affected the 4.6 million-strong population in its entirety, Amos added. About 1.6 million people are in dire need of food, protection, healthcare, water, shelter and other assistance. More than 206,000 people are displaced within the country, with many hiding in the bush. Nearly 60,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring states, two-thirds of them in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Aid agency Save the Children warned this week that more than 100,000 children faced sexual abuse and recruitment into armed groups in the former French colony.
The new UN envoy to the CAR, retired lieutenant-general Babacar Gaye, warned that, with no proper chain of command, "the country runs the risk of descending into anarchy and chaos".
All council members agree that the country is "close to being a failed state and we should absolutely take action", Gaye added.
He urged the council to provide financial, logistical and technical support to a new 3,500-strong African peacekeeping mission that will be "the only legitimate force" in the country. Gaye said the force will probably have to be increased pending an AU assessment mission next week in the capital, Bangui.
Ivan Šimonović, the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, warned the AU force alone would not be enough. "A much larger and nationally more diversified force is needed to provide security and protect the population," he said. "Such a force would also prevent foreign rebel groups, such as the Lord's Resistance Army or Islamist extremist groups, from finding a safe haven in the country."
Charles-Armel Doubane, CAR's ambassador to the UN, appealed for international help to build "a modern state: one of peace, security and stability, where simply living is good".
The 15-member UN security council said after Wednesday's meeting in New York that it was willing "to consider all potential options to stabilise the CAR".
"The members of the security council expressed deep concern at the security situation in CAR, characterised by a total breakdown in law and order, and the absence of the rule of law," it added. "They stressed that the armed conflict and crisis in CAR pose a serious threat to the stability of the CAR and the region."
Earlier this week Bozizé, now in Paris, said he had formed a political organisation called the Front for the Return of Constitutional Order in CAR. Its objective is to "follow and denounce everything that is happening in the country and inform the international community, which does not yet seem to have realised the grave crisis, the drama, unfolding in Central African Republic," he told Radio France International.
Asked if the formation of a new political entity meant he aimed to return to power, Bozizé said: "Yes, return to power. If the occasion arises, I will do it."