Clashes as French peacekeepers enter Bangui

Seleka militiamen race through Bangui yesterday. Picture: AP
Seleka militiamen race through Bangui yesterday. Picture: AP
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Fierce battles between rival militias yesterday rocked the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR).

The clashes in Bangui came as the United Nations’ backed French military action started in a bid to stem Muslim-Christian violence that threatens to descend into genocidal civil war.

A witness and an aid worker said at least 105 people were killed in fighting yesterday between former rebels now in charge of CAR and a mix of militia and fighters loyal to former president François Bozize who was toppled in coup earlier this year. Many were civilians.

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 have urged swift international action to prevent the anarchy in CAR leading to major atrocities against civilians.

Most of the fighting in Bangui had eased by midday, though the streets were largely deserted and death tolls mounted and there were reports of widespread abuses during the fighting.

“We’ve received numerous reports from very credible sources of extrajudicial executions,” said Joanne Mariner, a crisis expert with Amnesty International in Bangui.

“This underscores the need for international troops to arrive and secure the city. The situation is quickly spiralling out of control,” she added.

Fifty-three bodies had been brought to a mosque in Bangui’s PK5 neighbourhood. Most victims appeared to have been clubbed or hacked to death. Samuel Hanryon, who works for medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières at Bangui community hospital, said there were another 52 bodies at the morgue there.

The former French colony has slipped into chaos since mainly Muslim rebels seized power in March, leading to tit-for-tat sectarian violence. Underscoring the scope of the violence, African peacekeepers protecting hundreds of civilians in their base in Bossangoa came under heavy fire from the mainly Muslim former rebels yesterday.

In New York, the UN Security Council authorised French and African troops to use force to protect civilians. An arms embargo was imposed and the Council asked the United Nations to prepare for a possible peacekeeping mission. France has about 650 troops based at Bangui airport. Some 250 of these were deployed in town on Thursday to protect French interests and citizens. Foreign minister Laurent Fabius said the troop numbers would reach 1,200 “relatively quickly”.

CAR 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.

Michel Djotodia, leader of the Seleka former rebel alliance, is now interim president but he has struggled to control his loose band of fighters, many of whom are gunmen from neighbouring Chad and Sudan.

Mainly Christian local defence groups, known as “anti-balaka” – “anti-machete” – have sprung up in response to abuses committed in Bangui and up-country by the former rebels.

The clashes appeared to have started around the Boy Rabe neighbourhood, a stronghold of Mr Bozize raided by Seleka forces amid reports arms had been distributed to civilians before the former president fell.