Bangui - Violence in the Central African Republic has forced many traders and herders to flee, exacerbating an already alarming food crisis, relief groups said on Tuesday.
Oxfam and Action Contre La Faim (ACF - Action Against Hunger) said three quarters of wholesalers in Bangui had already fled.
“Most of Bangui's food trade relies on around 40 large-scale wholesalers who import food from neighbouring countries and resell on to small traders,” a statement said.
A study conducted by the two groups showed that only 10 remained, less than a year after a coup touched off a deadly cycle of sectarian violence.
“Even those remaining said they would flee too if security does not improve quickly,” the statement said.
Wholesalers said their sales have plummeted up to 90 percent over the past two months because people cannot afford to buy food anymore. Meat is also in short supply because herders have fled into the bush.
Former colonial power France deployed 1 600 troops two months ago and the African Union has three times as many on the ground but the killing and pillaging has continued to escalate.
Muslims, who controlled a large share of trading in Bangui and elsewhere, have been the main targets of the most recent wave of raids by Christian vigilantes.
Those militias were formed in reaction to the killing, raping and looting perpetrated by rogue rebels from the mainly Muslim rebel movement that seized power in March 2013.
According to the United Nations, 90 percent of the Central African Republic's 4.5 million people are only eating once a day.
The statement - which was also signed by aid groups International Medical Corps, Mercy Corps and Tearfund - warned several factors were converging that could spell a major food disaster.
The UN has warned that 96 percent of farmers have no access to seeds due to the conflict and are likely to miss the next planting season, which starts in a month.
“With a failed harvest, the existing crisis would worsen and last throughout the coming year,” the statement said.
Oxfam country director Philippe Conraud warned that fully-fledged market collapse would be disastrous.
“The Central African Republic risks facing a situation akin to a siege. As well as forcing people out of the country, violence and insecurity are stopping food from coming in, and people are unable to get enough food for their families,” he said.
“Many of those who have fled the attacks in Bangui were the backbone of the local economy. The consequences of failing to protect those who remain could be disastrous for everyone.”