Violence in the Central African Republic has led to the mutilation and beheading of children who may have been recruited as soldiers, a United Nations agency said Monday.
At least a thousand people have died since early December in fighting between Muslim and Christian groups in the country, and hundreds of thousands more have fled fearing rape, injury or death. French and African troops have struggled to contain violence between the armed groups.
UNICEF said it has confirmed the beheadings of two children and the mutilation of another. It also said 16 children have been killed and another 60 wounded in clashes between Muslim “Seleka” fighters and mostly Christian “Anti-Balaka” forces.
“We are witnessing unprecedented levels of violence against children. More and more children are being recruited into armed groups, and they are also being directly targeted in atrocious revenge attacks,” Souleymane Diabate, UNICEF Representative to the war-ravaged country, said in a news release.
"Targeted attacks against children are a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law and must stop immediately. Concrete action is needed now to prevent violence against children," Diabate said.
The country's most vulnerable have been no stranger to the fighting, which started in early December.
International medical charity Medicins San Frontiers (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, said the number of injured people received at its Community Hospital had risen to about 15 to 20 per day, many with machete wounds.
On Christmas Day three armed men entered the hospital, threatening the safety of patients, it said.
"It is totally unacceptable that health facilities are not being respected and are being invaded by armed people who constitute a threat to patients and staff," Thomas Curbillon, MSF's head of mission in the capital city of Bangui, said on Monday.
The number of internally displaced has swollen to more than 800,000 with the mounting violence, and more than 100,000 of them are sheltering in a makeshift camp at Bangui airport.
Martin Ziguele, a former prime minister and opposition leader, called for the formation of a national commission to bring accountability for crimes.
"There can be no true reconciliation without justice and forgiveness," he said.
Kristalina Georgieva, European Union aid chief, said that concerted international action was needed to prevent "an appalling tragedy from spiraling further out of control.”
Many say the bloodshed has little to do with religion — in a nation where Muslims and Christians have long lived in peace — and instead blame a political battle for control of resources in one of Africa's most weakly governed states.
The Central African Republic, racked by five coups and numerous rebellions since independence from France in 1960, is rich in diamonds, timber, gold and oil.
Witnesses reported heavy fighting on Monday, and the Red Cross said at least four people were killed.
"There was heavy weapons fire north of Bangui for a few hours and several neighborhoods were affected," Amy Martin, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bangui, told Reuters.
A Reuters reporter in the capital said that there had been shell explosions and mortar fire, but that it had stopped by late morning. Heavy arms fire had been reported in Bangui during a two-day surge in violence that began on Dec. 5, but shooting in recent days had been limited to sporadic small arms fire.
Guy-Simplice Kodegue, spokesman for interim President Michel Djotodia, said earlier that the new fighting was between government forces and members of the Christian militia, known as Anti-Balaka. “Balaka” is the local Sango language word for machete.
Kodegue did not say whether there had been any casualties.
A local resident who did not wish to be named said a group of about 40 men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles marched through northern Bangui on Monday, despite French-led efforts to disarm the population.
Another resident in a north Bangui neighborhood, Flavier Koma, said Seleka forces began a door-to-door hunt for Anti-Balaka fighters after the morning clashes.
The country's Christian majority has complained of waves of looting and killing by Djotodia's loose band of militias, who seized power in March with the aid of fighters from Chad and Sudan.
Violence intensified in early December after Christian militias launched reprisal attacks on Seleka forces.
Al Jazeera and Reuters