AS THE base for French forces in Central African Republic, Bangui airport is one of the safest places in town. It is now also home to about 30,000 civilians who have fled fighting between Christian and Muslim militia.
Even here, though, fear is palpable and access to the displaced, who are sprawled out across a large field or sheltering among rusting carcasses of abandoned airplanes, is controlled by Christian militia men and boys, some armed with machetes.
A militia group killed 27 Muslims in a village on Thursday night, the United Nations said, in an attack underscoring the difficulties faced by the French troops in stabilising their former colony.
The massacre took place in Bohong, about 50 miles from the western town of Bouar. “The situation is also tense in several towns, including Bouca, Bossangoa and Bozoum, where a vicious cycle of attacks and reprisals continues,” the UN Human Rights office said.
Alacide Bienvenu, one of the displaced at the airport, who sat, a machete resting in his hands, next to a young boy, said: “It was chaos. We can’t return home. When the French have finished their job and got rid of these people, we can return. Otherwise we’ll stay here.”
What he calls “these people” are the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels who seized power in March and carried out a string of abuses, prompting the creation of Christian defence groups.
An assault on Bangui last week by these Christian militia, aided by gunmen loyal to deposed president Francois Bozize, sparked waves of killings and reprisals that killed more than 500 people and displaced some 100,000 in the capital alone.
The number who have fled their homes across the country is now more than 500,000.
The violence was the worst in a year of conflict and coincided with France being given UN authorisation to intervene, in a mission aimed at bolstering an African peacekeeping force struggling to restore order.
Within hours, reinforcements were rushed to Bangui. Within days, two French soldiers were killed trying to disarm militia.
France, which now has 1,600 troops in the country, said most guns had been taken off the streets of Bangui and troops had begun disarming gunmen up-country.
“The disarming in Bangui is coming to its end,” French army spokesman Gilles Jaron said, without giving further details.
He said operations were under way in Bossangoa, about 190 miles to the north, where an African peacekeeper was killed last week and tens of thousands of people have been displaced.
“There were clashes in Bossangoa, but today the situation is calm and under control of [African peacekeepers] strengthened by French troops,” he said.
In a sign of further international efforts to prevent all-out war, the United States has begun airlifting in Burundian troops who will bolster the African force, which is due to soon fall under African Union command.
However, aid workers have warned of a deepening humanitarian crisis in the run-down capital, where cycles of violence have forced Christians to seek shelter in churches and monasteries while Muslims mainly remain in their strongholds.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has written an open letter to the UN accusing it of failing in its response to the crisis. MSF said it had repeatedly asked the UN to provide supplies, including food and tents, but it had not received a concrete response.
“It’s really a mess, there’s nobody else here,” said Tessy Fautsch, of MSF, the only aid agency at the airport, where there is a stench of urine and excrement. Malaria and chest infections were already problems, but the risk of further diseases was high due to the lack of water and other organisations looking after people, she said, adding: “Sanitation is almost non-existent.”
Taxis have returned to Bangui’s streets for the first time in days, but there are simmering tensions, despite reconciliation efforts by Muslim and Christian leaders.