Deadly C. Africa clashes raise genocide fears

2 min 19Approximate reading time

Witness reports of killings in the Central African Republic, some targeting aid workers, piled up Tuesday as the UN said it saw "early signs of a genocide" in the conflict-wracked nation.

At least 60 people have been killed in recent weeks in fighting between armed groups in Ngaoundaye and Batangafo in the north, Kaga-Bandoro in the centre and Alindao and Gambo to the south, witnesses have told AFP.

The fighting is largely between groups on opposing sides of the brutal conflict between Muslim and Christian militias that broke out in CAR in 2013 after President Francois Bozize was overthrown by a coalition of Muslim-majority rebel groups called the Seleka.

Groups on both sides are now fighting for control of natural resources -- including gold and diamonds -- and regional influence after a conflict that saw half a million people flee the country of 4.5 million.

At least three aid workers from the local branch of the Red Cross were among "several dozen" slaughtered at a health centre in Gambo in recent days, the humanitarian group's chief Antoine Mbao Bogo told AFP.

"Normally it's the Red Cross that gives the toll, because we bury the dead. But when you kill the Red Cross people, there's no one left to do it," he said.

The circumstances of the attack were still unclear, and it is difficult to confirm the nature of the casualties in a country where the state and army are virtually absent outside the capital Bangui.

Several sources said there had been clashes in Gambo between "self-defence" militias and the UPC, an armed Seleka faction.

Gambo lies 70 kilometres from the town of Bangassou, where nine peacekeepers have been killed since early May.

Twenty-four people including 14 civilians have meanwhile died in northwestern Batangafo in clashes from July 29 to August 2, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.

Residences used by humanitarian organisations in Batangafo were plundered after the fighting, medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF) told AFP.

The other deaths occurred in a southern village near Alindao where fighting on August 4 claimed about 10 lives and left seven others wounded, OCHA said.

Fighting in Ngaoundaye, near the borders with Cameroon and Chad, killed at least 10 others and forced around 7,000 people to flee the area, several sources told AFP.

- Genocide warning -

Alexandre Sarr, head of the UN refugees agency UNHCR in Meiganga across the border in Cameroon, said more than 6,800 people had arrived from CAR since July 10.

"Many are in poor health and many are malnourished children," he told AFP.

At a UN meeting in New York on Monday, OCHA chief Stephen O'Brien urged immediate action to contain the crisis in CAR before it's too late.

"The early warning signs of a genocide are there. We must act now, not pare down the UN's effort and pray we don't live to regret it," he said.

"It is all too clear to those on the ground: it is time to authorise an increase in troops and police personnel to enable MINUSCA to deliver on its critical protection mandate," he added, referring to the UN's peacekeeping force.

UN peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix last week said he was considering sending a request to the UN Security Council for more troops for MINUSCA, currently some 12,500 strong.

The Seleka were ousted following their overthrow of the president by a military intervention led by former colonial ruler France. Those events sparked some of the bloodiest sectarian violence in the country's history as mainly Christian vigilante groups sought revenge.

The government of President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who was elected last year, remains in control of Bangui but its authority is weak outside the capital, where deadly clashes continue between former Seleka rebels and Christian fighters.