Fear grows as CAR militia enter capital
Gunfire echoed through the capital of Central African Republic yesterday in the heaviest clashes there for months, hours before the UN was expected to authorise a French mission to curb escalating Muslim-Christian sectarian violence.
Former rebels controlling Bangui said they had come under attack from local militia and fighters loyal to ousted president Francois Bozize. A Reuters witness at one hospital said at least 23 people had been killed since shooting began before dawn. He saw another 64 wounded, including women and children.
Mindful of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when hundreds of thousands were killed as the world looked on, the United States and other Western powers are lobbying for international action to prevent the anarchy in Central African Republic leading to major atrocities against the civilian population.
“There has been gunfire all over town,” Amy Martin, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bangui, told Reuters.
The UN Security Council is due to vote later yesterday on dispatching hundreds of French reinforcements to restore order in the country, which has slipped into chaos since mainly Muslim rebels seized power in March, leading to tit-for-tat sectarian violence.
Central African Republic is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium but decades of instability and spillover from conflicts in its larger neighbours have kept it mired in crisis.
Mainly Christian local defence groups, known as “anti-balaka”, have sprung up in response to abuses committed in Bangui and up-country by the former rebels.
Helen van der Velden, head of mission for MSF-Holland, who have a team in Bangui’s Hopital Communautaire hospital said she was unable to assess the number of people killed as it was impossible venture out.
“But according to our staff in different neighbourhoods, there are numerous bodies in the streets,” she said.
Some rights groups have called for a UN peacekeeping mission to be set up immediately but African leaders want to see if a beefed-up African force supported by France can contain the violence.
The UN vote on whether to increase the French deployment is due at 1500 GMT.
“The situation is very worrying. There are serious risks,” said Cameroonian General Martin Tumenta Chomu, who heads the African Union peacekeeping mission, MISCA.
France has had 400 troops in Bangui to control the airport and protect French interests but reinforcements have been dispatched to prepare for the larger force that is due to help the struggling African peacekeeping mission restore order.