BANGUI (Reuters) — Gunfire echoed through
the capital of Central African Republic on Thursday in the heaviest
clashes there for months, hours before the U.N. was expected to
authorize a French mission to curb escalating Muslim-Christian sectarian
Former rebels controlling Bangui said they had come under attack
from local militia and fighters loyal to ousted president Francois
Bozize. A Reuters witness at one hospital said at least 23 people
had been killed since shooting began before dawn. He saw another 64
wounded, including women and children.
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 are lobbying for international action to prevent the
anarchy in Central African Republic leading to major atrocities
against the civilian population.
"There has been gunfire all over town," Amy Martin, head of the U.N.
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bangui, told
The U.N. Security Council is due to vote later on Thursday on
dispatching hundreds of French reinforcements to restore order in
the country, which has slipped into chaos since mainly Muslim rebels
seized power in March, leading to tit-for-tat sectarian violence.
Central African Republic is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium but
decades of instability and spillover from conflicts in its larger
neighbors 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 neighboring
Chad and Sudan.
Mainly Christian local defense groups, known as "anti-balaka", have
sprung up in response to abuses committed in Bangui and up-country
by the former rebels.
General Arda Hakouma, a former rebel now head of Djotodia's personal
security detail, said "anti-balaka" forces had attacked and fighting
was taking place in three parts of the city — PK12, PK9, and the 4th
"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.
Helen van der Velden, head of mission for MSF-Holland, who have a
team in Bangui's Hopital Communautaire hospital said she was unable
to assess the number of people killed as it was impossible venture
"But according to our staff in different neighborhoods, there are
numerous bodies in the streets," she said.
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
Martin said the clashes appeared to have started around the Boy Rabe
neighborhood, 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 neighborhood, she added.
Some rights groups have called for a U.N. peacekeeping mission to be
set up immediately but African leaders want to see if a beefed-up
African force supported by France can contain the violence.
The U.N. vote on whether to increase the French deployment is due at
10 a.m. ET.
"The situation is very worrying. There are serious risks," said
Cameroonian General Martin Tumenta Chomu, who heads the African
Union peacekeeping mission, MISCA.
"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 "anti-balaka"
fighters in the Ngaragba neighborhood, some in military fatigues
others in jeans and shorts.
Armed with AK47 assault rifles and rocket launchers, they broke 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.
Several French armored personnel carriers were seen driving through
the streets of the riverside town early on Thursday. Troops and
vehicles were deployed outside the French embassy.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he expected the
resolution to be adopted unanimously later on Thursday and France
would send about troops 1,200 "relatively quickly".
"The objective is to end this humanitarian tragedy, re-establish
security and help the democratic transition," Fabius told RMC radio
on Thursday morning.
France has had 400 troops in Bangui to control the airport and
protect French interests but reinforcements have been dispatched to
prepare for the larger force that is due to help the struggling
African peacekeeping mission restore order.
In a sign of the spreading violence, earlier this week, the United
Nations said armed men killed at least 12 civilians and wounded 30,
including children, northwest of Bangui.
(Additional reporting by Paul-Marin Ngoupana in Bangui, David Lewis
in Dakar, John Irish in Paris and Joe Bavier and Ange Aboa in
Abidjan; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Joe Bavier and Ralph