Hundreds try to flee violence in Central African Republic

Despite an increase in foreign peacekeeping troops, violence has spiked in recent days

Chadian people in Central African Republic crowd the Bangui airport while waiting to be evacuated on Saturday.
Andreea Campeanu/Reuters

Hundreds of people tried to flee inter-religious violence in Central African Republic on Saturday, seeking to board emergency flights to neighboring Chad, while nearby countries appealed for help to rescue their citizens from the mounting humanitarian crisis.

Violence between Muslim Seleka rebels, who seized power in March, and Christian self-defense militias has left more than 1,000 people dead this month in the riverside capital of Bangui. The violence has caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

While Bangui was calm on Saturday, fighting in the former French colony has surged in recent weeks despite the presence of 1,600 French peacekeepers and nearly 4,000 African Union troops deployed under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians.

The "anti-balaka" militia has targeted Muslims it says have supported Seleka during months of looting and killing since March. With many Seleka gunmen coming from Chad, Chadian citizens in particular have been singled out, prompting their government to charter flights this week to bring them home.

However, many of those who waited in the heat at Bangui airport were Muslim Central Africans who said they were fleeing their majority-Christian homeland for fear of reprisals.

"We have never known violence as barbaric as this," said Aishatou Abdelkarim, 31, who said she was married to a Chadian. "The devil has taken control of our country."

Chad's Foreign Minister Moussa Faki said some 4,000 Chadians had been transported home so far, many of whom had lived in Central African Republic their whole lives. That is just a fraction, however, of the hundreds of thousands of Chadians living in landlocked Central African Republic.

The United Nations reported this week that more than 800,000 people have fled their homes during this month's fighting, with about half of them seeking refuge in Bangui.

The U.N. appealed on Friday for $152 million to help meet emergency humanitarian needs such as drinking water and sanitation in makeshift camps.

Tens of thousands of people have sought safety at the international airport, where French peacekeepers have a base.

Cameroon flew home 214 of its citizens on Friday, bringing the number evacuated this month to 926, state radio there reported. Senegal and Niger, meanwhile, have asked the International Organization for Migration for urgent help in extracting hundreds of their own expatriates.

French President Francois Hollande told U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon by telephone Friday that he wants greater U.N. involvement in Central African Republic. Ban is preparing a proposal for a possible U.N. peacekeeping mission.

Two Congolese peacekeepers were killed when they were attacked by unidentified gunmen late on Thursday, a day after six Chadian peacekeepers were killed, a spokesman for the African Union's MISCA peacekeeping mission said.

Two French soldiers were also shot dead in early December.

Many say the bloodshed has little to do with religion in a region where Muslims and Christians have long lived in peace. Instead, they blame a political battle for control over resources in one of Africa's most weakly governed states.

"We used to live in perfect harmony with the Christians but it is Seleka and the anti-balaka who are trying to divide us," said Issa Baro, a 35-year-old Muslim trader from Chad, waiting to catch a flight home.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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