French army arrive in Central Africa town

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A French army soldier taking part in the Sangaris military operation in Central Africa checks his machine gun as he flies with a helicopter above Bossangoa on December 19, 2013. Picture: FRED DUFOUR

Bossangoa -

French peacekeeping troops have arrived in the Central African Republic town of Bossangoa, but houses still burn and weapons remain rife as sectarian resentment simmers.

“We are on maximum alert,” a humanitarian aid worker told AFP this week in the key town, one of the most badly affected by the Christian-Muslim violence that has swept the country.

Panic has spread among residents because of two rumours of massacres in the region. French forces, African troops and relief agencies also say they have received reports of a large attack planned by Christian militias against Muslims.

On Wednesday, a French patrol bumped into a group of armed men from Seleka - the officially disbanded, mostly Muslim rebel group that overthrew the government in March and installed its leader, Michel Djotodia, as president.

The French troops disarmed the men and put their Kalashnikovs in storage with between 100 and 200 other weapons seized over a fortnight in the region, said French military sources.

In a night raid on a house, French soldiers also seized jerrycans of petrol, hours after a series of fires that razed straw huts in both Christian and Muslim districts of the city.

“Tensions are getting higher from day to day,” said a relief worker.

Aid workers were all the more watchful after getting alarming news from Paoua, 150 kilometres away, where Seleka forces opened fire with assault rifles and rocket launchers and Christian militias warned of reprisals.

Nobody was reported killed or wounded. The gunfire followed a failed bid to broker peace between the people of the small town near the Chadian border and the “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) militias formed by Christians to fight Muslims.

“Things are still fragile, there are still hotbeds of tension,” said Captain Angoya Aboni, who commands the Bossangoa unit of MISCA, a regional African force deployed to the Central African Republic (CAR) - which on Thursday ceremonially passed under the authority of the African Union.

Aboni's 150 Congolese soldiers patrol the town in pick-up trucks, armed with Kalashnikovs.

“Looting is still going on at night to avoid detection by the African and French forces' patrols,” he said. “And assailants from whom we recover weapons come from (refugee) camps, proving that there are weapons in the camps.”

On December 7, after an upsurge of violence in the region and other parts of the CAR, the MISCA contingent wanted to disarm anti-balaka forces mingled in with about 40 000 Christians who had sought refuge around the local episcopal residence. But the operation was called off over fears it might cause a riot.

Clotilde Namboi, the chief district administrator of the Ouham region, where Bossangoa lies, said the conflict had unleashed “a cycle of hatred, and it isn't over”.

“Muslims and Christians take revenge,” she said, adding that even if “things quieten down a little in the town, in the most outlying areas, it's precarious.”

There have been warnings within the CAR and abroad of an unprecedented spiral of violence in the poverty-stricken nation, where Djotodia ousted president Francois Bozize in the latest of a long line of coups.

He soon became the first Muslim head of state in a country prone to upheaval, but where the minority Muslims have hitherto lived peaceably alongside Christians, who make up 80 percent of the population of about 4.6 million.

In the Bossangoa hospital, run by Doctors Without Borders, casualties wounded by gunshots or slashed by machetes are still turning up. Many come in from the bush and were assaulted several days earlier, according to the medical charity's local coordinator, Joseph Baugniet.

In a visit to the town on Wednesday, the commander of the French military force deployed in the CAR, General Francisco Soriano, said “tension has fallen sharply” across the country after two weeks of violence.

But Captain Gueguen would not rule out the presence of more weapons in the camps and said “conditions are not yet right for people to return to their villages.”

Nevertheless, he said progress had been made and atrocities prevented. “When we arrived, the Seleka wanted to shell the Christian camp with mortars.”

Two weeks later, these Seleka forces are confined to their homes and “have been neutralised”, Gueguen said. Homes have been set ablaze, looting goes on, but these are “isolated incidents” and there will always be “bandits”, the captain added.

“We can never be behind every mango tree,” he said. - Sapa-AFP

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