Two militia groups involved in bloodshed in Central African Republic said Friday they were withdrawing from a disarmament programme following the arrest in France of one of their leaders.
The decision to pull out was triggered by the arrest on Wednesday of Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona, a former minister and member of Africa's top footballing body, on war crimes charges.
Both groups belong to the so-called anti-Balaka (anti-machete) movement, a group of Christian vigilante units set up five years ago to counter attacks by mainly-Muslim Seleka rebels.
They have since engaged in years of bloody sectarian violence with their mainly-Muslim rivals, leaving thousands dead.
In a bid to draw a line under the bloodshed, the government began a pilot disarmament programme in August 2017, with the UN saying in October that six groups had so far committed to it. The process of collecting weapons is due to start by the year's end.
But the two groups said they were withdrawing their support for the national plan for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) after the arrest of Ngaissona for acting as a top coordinator for the anti-Balaka militias.
Issued by the International Criminal Court, the warrant refers to "alleged criminal responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the western part of Central African Republic" between September 2013 and December 2014.
- 'Witch-hunt' -
"We see that only the anti-Balaka are tried and sentenced," said the militia group which is headed by Ngaissona in announcing its withdrawal from the DDR process.
A second group, led by Maxime Mokom, denounced Ngaissona's arrest as a "witch-hunt" and also said it was pulling out of the programme.
His arrest came just weeks after another former anti-Balaka leader -- Alfred Yekatom, known as Rambo -- was arrested and deported to the ICC in The Hague, creating a growing sense of resentment among the militia groups.
"We have shown good faith, we have initiated dialogue, we do not understand," anti-Balaka coordinator Dieudonne Ndomate told AFP.
"People in the (Bangui) neighbourhoods are furious."
But another anti-Balaka leader, Sebastien Wenezoui -- who is also Ngaissona's spokesman -- called for restraint.
"We will stick to the African Union's peace process," he said, recalling that the anti-Balaka emerged "in response to the Seleka atrocities".
He said Ngaissona's arrest amounted to "incitement to rebel against the current regime" which was why he was called on "all the anti-Balaka militia groups to show restraint".
Despite his call, groups of angry anti-Balaka supporters could be seen gathering on the streets in two districts of Bangui, several sources said.
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) recently welcomed the arrests.
"Ngaissona is a major anti-Balaka leader. After the arrests of Rambo and Ngaissona, the ICC must now also deal with the ex-Seleka leaders," said Pierre Brunisso, FIDH coordinator in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
Set up after President Francois Bozize, a Christian, was overthrown by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels in 2013, the anti-Balaka vigilantes got their name for their opposition to the Balaka machetes used by the Seleka.