Gunfire echoed across the capital of the near-anarchic Central African Republic early on Thursday amid reported clashes between the mostly Muslim armed fighters who have controlled the country since March and Christians who support the ousted president.
The United Nations Security Council is set to authorise troops from African nations and former colonial power France to deploy amid growing sectarian violence. The most recent attack this week, which was blamed on Christian fighters, killed nearly a dozen women and children in a remote community.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday that military intervention would unfold swiftly after the UN vote, telling BFM-TV that the French deployment would total around 1 200, with 600 troops already in the country.
“We have to end this humanitarian catastrophe and restore security,” Fabius said.
Crackles of gunfire first erupted around 6am and could still be heard sporadically nearly three hours later close to Bangui's airport. Other reports of arms fire came in from suburbs north and east of Bangui.
“It's not exactly clear but we believe the attackers are members of the anti-balaka,” said government spokesman Gaston Mackouzangba. “Our forces are on the ground now.”
Balaka means machete, and “anti-balaka” is the name adopted by groups who took up arms against members of the former rebel coalition known as Seleka, who now claim control of the government.
Seleka is an unlikely group of allies who united a year ago with the goal of forcing President Francois Bozize from the presidency after a decade in power. After thousands of rebels besieged Bangui in March, Bozize fled and the insurgents installed their leader Michel Djotodia as president.
However, he has increasingly sought to distance himself from his former allies as the Seleka rebels have been blamed for scores of atrocities in Bangui, killing and raping civilians and stealing from aid groups and orphanages. He has even less control over the ex-Seleka in the distant provinces where anger over human rights abuses fueled the formation of the Christian anti-balaka movement several months ago.
While the anti-balaka fighters include villagers defending their communities against Seleka attacks with artisanal hunting rifles and machetes, it also is believed to be receiving support from those still allied to Bozize, now in exile. The anti-balaka fighters also have been implicated in massacres on Muslim civilian populations, which also have suffered under the Seleka regime and say they are being unfairly blamed for Seleka's wanton destruction.
The death toll has been impossible to estimate in Central African Republic, a long lawless and desperately poor country in the heart of Africa where many roads have not been repaved since independence from France in 1960. Fabius has warned that Central African Republic is on “the verge of genocide” as communal violence escalates.
France called for a vote on Thursday on a resolution that would authorise the deployment of an African Union-led force to Central African Republic for a year to protect civilians and restore security and public order. The AU force is replacing a regional peacekeeping mission whose presence has been mainly limited to the capital and a few northern cities.
The UN resolution also would authorise French forces, for a temporary period, “to take all necessary measures” to support the AU-led force known as MISCA, whose troop numbers are expected to rise from about 2 500 to 3 500. - Sapa-AP