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Hundreds Break Out of Prison as Violence Continues in Central African Republic

At least 30 people have been killed and more than 100 people injured in clashes that kicked off on Saturday in the capital city, sparking fears the country's interim president could be overthrown.
Des manifestants à Bangui demandent la démission de la président d’Intérim Catherine Samba Panza, le 28 septembre 2015. (Photo par Herve Cyriaque Serefio / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

Hundreds of prisoners escaped from the main jail in the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR) on Monday and UN peacekeepers fired warning shots to disperse thousands of protesters calling for the rearming of the army, as violence and unrest from the weekend continued.

At least 30 people have been killed and more than 100 people injured during intercommunal clashes that kicked off on Saturday in the capital Bangui, a city secured by UN and French personnel. The violence has sparked fears that the country's interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, could be overthrown.

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"There is no one in the prison," a senior gendarmerie source said, referring to the Ngaraba jail where the prison break occurred.

Samba-Panza left the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday to return home due to the worst violence so far this year, two Western diplomats told Reuters.

"She left [New York] to go back to Central Africa because of the security situation," one diplomat told the news agency.

In a video posted online Monday, footage shows burned-out cars and damage in Bangui, reportedly from the violence over the weekend. Burned out cars can be seen along nearly empty streets of a neighborhood in the city.

Another video posted this week appears to show residents running through Bangui, carrying branches and other objects along with them.

In New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN Security Council condemned the violence.

"(Ban) strongly condemns all acts of violence and calls for an immediate end to the unacceptable violence and retaliatory attacks," the secretary general's press office said. "He urges the Central African Republic's Transitional Authority to do everything within its means to prevent further violence."

The Security Council warned in a statement that it remains prepared to blacklist individuals and entities that undermine peace and stability in the country.

The clashes began on Saturday when the murder of a Muslim man sparked reprisals by Muslims on a Christian neighborhood and attacks by armed gangs on civilians. Gunshots rang out on Monday night despite a curfew. Few ventured out during the day and Christian militia known as anti-balaka manned checkpoints.

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Thousands marched to within 300 feet of the presidential palace to call for a bigger role for the army. The army was sidelined when mostly Muslim northern rebels, known as Seleka, seized power in 2013. A UN-backed interim government is yet to rearm the army after officers were linked to the anti-balaka militia that conducted reprisals against Muslims.

At the same time, the demonstrators were also reportedly protesting against the presence of MINUSCA — the UN peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic — and pushing for the peacekeepers to exit the country. There were reports of clashes between peacekeeping forces and protesters on Monday, but it was unclear whether any injuries or deaths had occurred as a result, according to the Wall Street Journal. Demonstrators faulted MINUSCA troops for shooting deaths during the unrest, but the UN denied that its peacekeepers were responsible for the violence.

"MINUSCA protected the presidency but did not kill protesters," said Myriam Dessables, the mission's spokeswoman, told the Associated Press.

Overnight on Monday, the police headquarters in Bangui was attacked by the anti-balaka and two gendarmes were injured, the police deputy director said.

A Western diplomat attributed the eruption of violence to the fact that Samba-Panza and MINUSCA leaders and senior officials were away in New York for the general assembly meeting, according to Reuters. The diplomat told the media outlet that UN forces had not reacted quickly enough.

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The US State Department condemned the violence in a statement that expressed support for Samba-Panza and her transitional government.

UN interim humanitarian coordinator Marc Vandenberghe said he was "extremely worried" by the loss of life. A Reuters journalist saw a young man's corpse in the street on Monday. Witnesses said he was killed by anti-balaka forces. Red Cross officials, however, said a death toll was hard to establish because they have been prevented from entering neighborhoods by protesters and armed groups.

Private residences and offices for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and a medical charity were pillaged Sunday afternoon, according to a witness. Meanwhile, UNICEF said children were targeted, citing the murders of three boys aged 16 and 17, one of whom was decapitated.

The country erupted in violence after Seleka rebels seized power in the majority-Christian country in 2013, killing thousands and leaving hundreds of thousands still displaced.

Central African Republic has been led by a transitional government since January 2014. Its citizens were expected to vote in presidential polls scheduled for October 18, but the upcoming elections are widely expected to be postponed.

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