BANGUI, Central African Republic: France warned Friday of a dangerous spiral of sectarian violence in the Central African Republic as the UN said more than 600 people had died in recent unrest.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian flew into the capital Bangui early Friday and met some of the 1,600 French troops deployed in the country before he was due to hold talks with CAR’s interim authorities. His arrival came amid continued unrest in the capital, where residents reported seeing bands of armed thugs roaming the streets and hearing heavy bursts of gunfire in some neighbourhoods.
UN refugee agency UNHCR said that more than 600 people had been killed in the violence in CAR in the past week, including 450 in Bangui and 160 in other parts of the country. It said the death toll was likely to rise as new bodies were found. “The spiral of confrontation has abruptly worsened,” Le Drian said in a speech to about 200 French soldiers in Bangui, also warning of “the early beginnings of a humanitarian crisis”.
Concerns have been growing over the humanitarian situation in CAR, which was plunged into chaos after a rebel-backed coup ousted president Francois Bozize in March. France sent troops into its ex-colony at the weekend to bolster an African peacekeeping force that has struggled to contain increasing violence, including sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims.
UNHCR said the violence had also forced nearly 160,000 residents of Bangui from their homes in the past week. They were spread over some 40 sites, including near the airport, in churches and in mosques. Many were living rough in camps, their misery compounded by recent downpours. Le Drian said he was in the country to offer “the support of a proud nation” to French troops, who suffered their first losses when two soldiers were killed in clashes on Monday.
Intensive patrols continued on the streets of Bangui Friday and witnesses said at least one clash involving French soldiers occurred on the road to the airport, where French forces are based. After addressing the troops, Le Drian flew by helicopter to Bossangoa in CAR’s northwest, where several hundred French troops are deployed. On his return to Bangui later, Le Drian was to meet interim president Michel Djotodia, the former leader of the now disbanded Seleka rebel group that ousted Bozize.
Heavy exchanges of gunfire Djotodia became the first Muslim president of the majority Christian country following the coup, but while some Seleka members remained loyal, others started terrorising the population and government forces were powerless to stop them. Months of massacres, rapes and looting followed, with locals forming Christian vigilante groups in response.
The UN’s human rights office said that 27 Muslims had been killed by militia in a village in the west of the country and raised concerns about “retaliatory attacks between Christians and Muslim communities”. “We are alarmed at the increasing tensions among religious communities,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the UN high commissioner for human rights. Interim prime minister Nicolas Tiangaye called for the killings to end, telling France 24 television he regretted that “religious communities that had always lived together in perfect harmony are now massacring each other. “Despite some signs of life returning to normal, the situation remained extremely tense in parts of Bangui.
In the northern Gobongo district, residents said groups of armed men were roaming the streets at night, firing guns and trying to force their way into homes. Heavy exchanges of gunfire were also heard early Friday in the western neighbourhood of Miskine, residents said. “It was horrible. There was firing everywhere,” said one resident, who gave her name only as Jennifer. In downtown Bangui however, banks were reopening and petrol stations were operating for the second day running.
Long queues formed as taxi drivers returned to the streets and residents filled up on kerosene for the generators often used in a city that suffers from frequent power cuts. “It is my first day at work since December 5,” said taxi driver Theodore Jusalin, who waited two-and-a-half hours to fill his tank. “There are errands to run. People are starting to go out, to go to work.”
Humanitarian groups have urged the United Nations to do more to provide desperately needed aid to Bangui and on Friday UN children’s agency Unicef said it was sending a major airlift of supplies to the capital.
Unicef spokeswoman Marixie Mercado told reporters in Geneva that a plane carrying 77 metric tonnes of emergency supplies, including blankets, soap, plastic sheeting and medicine, would be landing in Bangui around 3:30 pm (1430 GMT).The World Food Programme also began distributing food to the about 45,000 people living near the Bangui airport.