Sectarian fighting has erupted in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, in the city's worst violence since a ceasefire was signed between rival fighters in July. The clashes have reportedly killed at least 12 people, including a UN peacekeeper. This is the first UN death since the organization assumed peacekeeping duties here on September 15 and eight other UN representatives were reportedly injured.
Heavy gunfire was heard throughout the city today, including in border areas between the majority-Muslim "KM-5" neighborhood and adjoining districts. Traffic came to a standstill as both residents and humanitarian workers stayed home. French military helicopters circled overhead.
"The situation in Bangui right now is still very tense," said Colonel Seppala Kalle, the Civil-Military Coordinator in EUFOR, the European peacekeeping force. Kalle said EUFOR troops dismantled makeshift barricades around the city, and that troops came under fire by what he called "Muslim self-defense groups" in KM-5.
The most recent round of violence erupted after a Muslim man was killed on Wednesday in a predominantly Christian neighborhood. EUFOR and humanitarian sources say the man threw multiple grenades into a crowded market, injuring dozens of people.
He was later chased down and killed. His body was returned to KM-5, causing a crowd of angry residents to gather in front of the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force, MINUSCA. In the chaos that ensued, at least two others were reportedly killed and a number of local businesses destroyed.
Tensions have been building between Muslim and non-Muslim communities after Séléka rebels invaded the capital in March 2013, overthrowing the government of Francois Bozizé.
The takeover was marked by nine months of widespread looting, rape, and murder, according to Human Rights Watch. In turn, the non-Muslim "anti-Balaka" fighters attacked Muslims for their perceived support of the Séléka.
The country is now divided in two, with the anti-Balaka controlling the West, Séléka in control of the Northeast, and international peacekeepers supporting a fragile government that has little authority outside of the capital.
Thousands of residents have been displaced since this morning, according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Some have fled to the Mpoko camp near the airport, already home to about 20,000 displaced people.
Yet aid workers have not been able to assist many of the recent victims. The Central African Red Cross said they were not able to respond to calls for help after their workers were threatened. International staff are also on lockdown at home, so it has been difficult to assess the deteriorating humanitarian situation.
"It's extremely difficult to get information right now," said Jean-François Sangsue, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bangui.
The violence comes a few days after Edouard Patrice Ngaissona, the national coordinator of the anti-Balaka, called for the resignation of President Samba Panza, the country's interim leader who took over when Séléka leader Michel Djotodia resigned in January.
Ngaissona said Thursday's violence is due to Panza failing to disarm various fighters and reconcile groups, and for delaying plans for a new round of elections. "Central Africans are tired of her," Ngaissona told VICE News. "When the people speak, we should listen."
The recent fighting illustrates the often-intractable polarization of the conflict in this country. Residents outside of KM-5 blamed Muslim defense groups for the violence.
"We barricaded the road because the Muslims are trying to attack us,"Désiré Gbangou, who was armed with a machete strung across his chest, standing near an anti-Balaka checkpoint, told VICE News. "It's not just us anti-Balaka who are against them, it's the entire population."
"We've lived with them for centuries, but when the Séléka came, the Muslims changed and they became Séléka themselves," said another Bangui resident who wished to remain anonymous, sounding a common refrain among Christian residents. "We are sick of the uncontrollable abuses that are being committed by the Muslim community."
But residents in the KM-5 neighborhood say they need to remain armed to protect themselves from anti-Balaka assaults. They also blamed anti-Balaka for attacking first.
"Anti-Balaka just want to attack the neighborhood," Imam Ahmed Tidjani, of the city's Central Mosque in KM-5, told VICE News. "That's the one and only cause of the violence."
Malik, the President of the Association of Young Muslims who wished to only use his first name, told VICE News that the neighborhood had been encircled by anti-Balaka since Tuesday and that armed self-defense groups had only been trying to protect the community.
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