BANGUI, (Reuters) – Rival militia forces fought fierce battles in Central African Republic’s capital today and the U.N. authorised French military action to halt Muslim-Christian sectarian violence that threatens to escalate into widespread civilian massacres.
A Reuters witness and an aid worker said at least 105 people had been killed in the fighting between former rebels now in charge of the country and fighters loyal to ousted president Francois Bozize. Many were civilians.
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 Medecins Sans Frontieres at Bangui’s Hopital Communautaire, said there were another 52 bodies at the morgue there.
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 Central African Republic leading to major atrocities against the civilian population.
Most of the fighting in Bangui had eased by midday, though the streets were largely deserted and there were reports of mounting death tolls and 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 who is currently in Bangui.
“This underscores the need for international troops to arrive and secure the city. The situation is quickly spiralling out of control,” Mariner added.
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 on Thursday, a witness at the scene said.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council authorized French and African troops to use force to protect civilians. An arms embargo was imposed on the country and the Council asked the United Nations to prepare for a possible peacekeeping mission.
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.
Michel Djotodia, leader of the Seleka former rebel alliance, is now the country’s 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”, have sprung up in response to abuses committed in Bangui and up-country by the former rebels.
Djotodia accused Bozize loyalists of mounting the attack and ordered an overnight curfew. General Arda Hakouma, his head of security, said “anti-balaka” forces were also involved.
“There are many of them. Some of them are well armed with rifles and rocket launchers. Others are dressed in civilian clothes with machetes,” Hakouma said.
Helen van der Velden, head of mission for MSF-Holland, which has a team in Bangui’s Hopital Communautaire hospital, would not comment on the dead seen at the hospital but said staff had reported “numerous bodies in the streets”.
A witness at the hospital said soldiers from a regional peacekeeping force already deployed in the country brought in about a dozen wounded. They then left despite the pleas of civilians for them to stay and protect them from marauding fighters. The hospital’s staff had fled.
A separate witness said he saw dozens of bodies in the Ouango market, in the southeast of the city.
The clashes appeared to have started around the Boy Rabe neighbourhood, a stronghold of Bozize that has been repeatedly raided by Seleka forces amid reports arms had been distributed to civilians before the former president fell.
There were reports of arms being handed out to civilians in the mainly Muslim PK5 neighbourhood.
Some rights groups have called for a U.N. peacekeeping mission to be set up immediately but regional leaders want to see if a beefed-up African force supported by France can contain the violence.
It was not immediately clear how long it would take for French troops to take action after the vote in New York.
“The current situation is unacceptable,” the United Nations, African Union, European Union and France said in a joint statement on Thursday. “This attack led to loss of human life and targeted assassinations.”
“WE NEED THE FRENCH”
Having previously intervened in CAR’s conflicts, Paris initially sought to avoid this one. But the scale of the violence since the rebels swept south has forced France’s hand.
“When Seleka entered, there were dead Christians. This time it could be worse … We need the French. The French have to come quickly,” Wilfred Koyamba, a Bangui resident told Reuters.
Another resident said he saw a group of about 40 heavily armed “anti-balaka” fighters in the Ngaragba neighbourhood break open the prison doors there. One of the fighters told the resident: “Stay at home. Show us the houses of the Muslims.”
Some Seleka gunmen had stripped off uniforms to blend into the population, witnesses said.
France has about 650 troops based at Bangui’s airport, which they are protecting. Some 250 of these were deployed in town today to protect French interests and citizens.
Hundreds of others are pre-positioned in Cameroon, Gabon and Chad, pending U.N. approval for the larger force due to help the struggling African peacekeeping mission restore order.
France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he expected French troop numbers would reach 1,200 “relatively quickly”.