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French troops try to halt Central African conflict

13 December 2013


Terror: some of the more than 10,000 internally displaced people who have sought shelter from violence at the Don Bosco Center outside the capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui, on Saturday

Terror: some of the more than 10,000 internally displaced people who have sought shelter from violence at the Don Bosco Center outside the capital o...

MORE than 1500 French troops have been sent to the Central African Republic in the past week, where sectarian violence has killed hundreds, and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in the former French colony.

The soldiers were dispatched in response to fresh outbreaks of fighting between Muslim former rebels, known as the Seleka, and Christian groups who say that they are defending themselves from attack.

On Monday night, two French soldiers were killed near the airport in the capital, Bangui, in a clash with unidentified gunmen.

About half of the country's population of 4.6 million are Christians, but in March the Muslim Seleka, led by Michel Djotodia, overthrew the government of President François Bozizé, and took power. Attempts to disband the militias have failed, and communal violence has broken out across the nation. So-called "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) Christian self-defence groups have sprung up to fight against the former Seleka rebels.

The French intervention is backed by a UN Security Council resolution, and will support an existing 2500-strong African Union peacekeeping force. Reports from Bangui describe bodies lying in the streets, and civilians seeking refuge in the peacekeepers' bases.

Human Rights Watch says that a Seleka force in the north-western town of Bossangoa marched on a Roman Catholic camp, which housed some 35,000 Christians. A massacre was avoided only after intervention by African peacekeepers.

Fr Frédéric Tonfio, Vicar-General of the RC diocese of Bossangoa, told the BBC that he believed that the situation could easily become a genocide. A BBC reporter in the city said that a number of Muslims were killed when the house of an imam was attacked by a Christian militia group. Up to 7000 Muslims are sheltering in the opposite side of the town to the Christians.

Abel Nguerefara, who lives in Bangui, told the AP news agency: "Thanks to France and the United Nations who want to save the Central Africans, soon the Seleka attacks on civilians will stop. We have had enough of Seleka killing, raping and stealing."

Nevertheless, three days of revenge attacks from anti-balaka Christian fighters in Bangui have left at least 394 dead, Reuters reports.

The UN says that up to 460,000 Central Africans have been forced from their homes, and that a million need urgent food aid. David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, which is working in the country, said that the intensity of the violence and the "unspeakable cruelty" had forced it to suspend relief efforts.

The Red Cross announced on Saturday that it had provided beans, maize, oil, and other essential food supplies for 20,000 people who have taken refuge in Bangui. "We're extremely concerned about the situation here," said Arnaud de Baecque, deputy head of the Red Cross in Bangui. "We call on the authorities to do their utmost to protect the population."

The charity Médicins Sans Frontières said on Saturday that it was treating about 14,000 people in Bangui, mostly for gunshot wounds or injuries caused by machetes and knives.

In a statement, UNICEF warned that children were being drawn into the conflict. The agency's executive director, Anthony Lake, referred to "the targeting of children" and "outrages" against them.

A spokesman for the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, issued an urgent appeal to all parties: "This horrific cycle of violence and retaliation must stop immediately. . . Those responsible for grave violations must be brought to justice."

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