Bodies were lying in the streets of the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR) on Thursday as at least 100 people were killed in sectarian fighting, prompting warnings from aid agencies that the country stands on “the brink”.
At least 50 corpses were taken directly to hospital morgues in Bangui, according to Médecins Sans Frontières, which sent a team to help medical teams deal with an influx of wounded. A spokesperson said the teams treated around 70 people with what the organisation described as “serious” injuries including “wounds caused by gunshots, or weapons like machetes and knives”.
The escalation in violence prompted a swift reaction at the United Nations where the Security Council unanimously approved the deployment of thousands of French and African Union troops to the troubled country.
CAR has been gradually slipping into lawlessness since March when then-rebel Muslim fighters overthrew the government of the Christian president, François Bozizé. Michel Djotodia, the Muslim leader of the alliance known as Séléka, is now the interim president of the Christian-majority country, but has struggled to control fighters who are only loosely allied to his power base. Many of those who helped him overthrow the Bozizé government are mercenaries from Chad and Sudan.
In response to the coup, local Christian militias – known as “anti-balaka” (or “anti-machete”) – have formed and as their numbers swelled, clashes with Séléka groups have taken on increasing ferocity. It is believed that Thursday's violence began early in a neighbourhood that has remained loyal to Bozizé.
“There has been gunfire all over town,” said Amy Martin, head of the UN office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs in Bangui, speaking to Reuters. It was also reported that the area had come under attack from Séléka fighters.
Both sides blamed each other for the violence. Djotodia accused Bozizé 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,” he said. There were widespread reports of children participating in the violence.
“When Séléka 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 source: “Stay at home. Show us the houses of the Muslims.”
Speaking to the BBC, the UN’s special representative in CAR, Babacar Gaye, said there is a danger of mass killings in Bangui if nothing is done to stop the violence.
“Today something very worrisome happened because a group... attacked the town,” he said. “We don’t know the size, but what we know is that within [Séléka], casualties have been observed including commanding officers and we know that downtown, unfortunately, targeted violence is ongoing, so we are in a very bad situation.”
Exact figures for the number of dead could not be verified. Reuters news agency reported that at least 105 people had been killed yesterday, and many, it said, were civilians. Aid groups said that non-combatants were being deliberately attacked and that there was evidence of targeted killings.
“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,” Ms Mariner said.
Justin Forsyth, the chief executive of Save the Children is in CAR. He told The Independent that “the fresh outbreak of violence today across the Central African Republic has reinforced the importance and urgency of boosting the peacekeeping force. As CAR descends into further chaos, it’s critical to pull the country back from the brink.”
As recently as a fortnight ago, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, warned that the former French colony was, “on the verge of genocide”. Yesterday’s clashes were reported to be the heaviest since March.
The fresh wave of killing has prompted the international community, conscious of the criticism it received when 800,000 people died in sectarian bloodshed in Rwanda in 1994, to react with unusual speed. In New York, the UN Security Council voted to approve the deployment of thousands of French and African Union troops and has authorised them to use force to protect civilians. An arms embargo was also imposed on the country and the council asked the United Nations to prepare for a possible peacekeeping mission.
The UK government is understood to have agreed to send C-17 transport aircraft to the country at the request of the French, which will send another 1,200 troops to join up with the 600 soldiers it already has in CAR. They are expected to be deployed as early as Friday.