By CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr
American military aircraft will fly African and European peacekeepers to the Central African Republic, which is in the midst of a bloody internal conflict between various proclaimed Christian and Muslim militias and other rebel factions.
The decision announced the Pentagon was followed by a statement from President Barack Obama, who called on the country's citizens to reject violence and urged the transitional government to join "respected leaders" in Muslim and Christian communities in calling for "calm and peace."
"Individuals who are engaging in violence must be held accountable in accordance with the law. Meanwhile, as forces from other African countries and France work to restore security, the United States will support their efforts to protect civilians," Obama said.
Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog said "the United States is joining the international community" in aiding the peackeeping effort "because of our belief that immediate action is required to avert a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel responded after talking with his French counterpart, Yves Le Drian, on Sunday from Afghanistan, Woog said, adding that France asked for "limited assistance."
The request for near term help involves U.S. air support to enable the prompt deployment of African forces "to prevent the further spread of sectarian violence," Woog said.
Violence has raged in the former French colony east of Cameroon since a coalition of rebels deposed President Francois Bozize in March. It was the latest in a series of coups since the nation gained independence. Bozize fled the country after his ouster.
Left uncontrolled, militia groups are uniting along religious lines. Christian vigilante groups have formed to battle Seleka, the predominantly Muslim coalition behind the President's removal.
More than 400,000 people - nearly 10% of the population - have been internally displaced, according to the United Nations.
The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution last week authorizing military intervention by an African Union-led force backed by French troops to protect civilians, restore humanitarian access and stabilize the country.
As part of the effort, the United States will fly troops from Burundi to the Central African Republic capital of Bangui.
The Pentagon will provide security for its planes, but there is no indication about the number of troops involved. The operation is expected to be relatively small.
Violence on the ground, which has included machetes, knives, rifles and grenades, will be a "big factor" in any U.S. operation, a U.S. official told CNN.
"It's a concern," the official said.
French President Francois Hollande said in Paris over the weekend that the goal is to hold elections once security is restored.
Those displaced include people hiding in the bush without shelter, food, or drinking water, Doctors Without Borders has said.
In a statement on Monday, the international medical organization called for all parties to let the wounded and sick "safely obtain medical care," and for "an end to violence and threats against patients, civilians, and medical staff" nationwide.