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Violent Attacks Across Central African Republic Highlight Limitations of International Response

Peacekeepers in the CAR are hard-pressed to protect civilians amid continued fighting between predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian and animist self-defense groups.

by Samuel Oakford
Nov 8 2014, 12:20am

Photo via AP/Jerome Delay

Nearly two months into the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, a spate of attacks across the country illustrates the shortcomings of the international response to its disregarded conflict.

The mission, dubbed MINUSCA and officially launched on September 15, still has only two-thirds of the 11,800 peacekeepers mandated by the UN Security Council. Other divisions, such as the one for human rights, face even greater staff shortages. Operating alongside roughly 2,000 French troops and some 750 EU peacekeepers, the combined force has been hard-pressed to protect civilians amid continued fighting between predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian and animist self-defense groups called the anti-balaka in a territory roughly the size of France.

On October 10th in Dekoa, a town 160 miles north of the capital Bangui, armed members of the Seleka stormed a church where civilians had sought shelter. Despite the presence of UN peacekeepers at the entrance of the church, nine people were murdered as they hid inside the compound. French troops eventually arrived to quell the violence, but not before five more civilians were killed in the town. Three women and four children were among the dead.

The perpetrators of the massacre were among some 75 rebels that had lingered around Dekoa, effectively exerting control over it well before the incident at the church, according to Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International's deputy regional director for West and Central Africa. Amnesty released a statement this week calling on MINUSCA to step up measures to protect civilians and prevent further sectarian attacks — a task the rights group admits isn't easy.

"With a whole variety of armed groups that are attacking small villages, it would be impossible to have a contingent in every town," Cockburn, who recently returned from visiting the Central Africa Republic, told VICE News. "Even 12,000 troops won't provide perfect security, but having two-thirds of that means they're often outgunned and overstretched, and that means they're less able or willing to confront armed groups."

The current crisis in the Central African Republic began in late 2012 when Seleka rebels largely hailing from CAR's Muslim minority, joined by elements from neighboring countries such as Chad, captured large swaths of the north and center of the country with little resistance from President Francois Bozize's government.

In March 2013, rebels captured Bangui and soon installed their leader Michel Djotodia as president after Bozize fled to Cameroon. Djotodia oversaw a state of lawlessness, as Seleka members took to robbing and murdering the increasingly besieged civilian population in and around Bangui. In September, Djotodia dissolved the Seleka, a move that only served to worsen the violence.

By December, open war was leaving dozens of bodies strewn daily in the streets of Bangui. That month, France established Operation Sangaris with UN approval to augment the troubled African Union peacekeeping force in the country — a deployment whose member countries had been implicated in atrocities of their own. The French immediately targeted the Seleka and drove them from the capital.

At the time, Muslim residents of Bangui told VICE News they were concerned that the narrow focus of the French on the rebels was leaving them vulnerable to newly minted anti-balaka militias, many with ties to Bozize's regime. Those fears soon proved prescient, as the militias drove tens of thousands of Muslims from Bangui and the surrounding area. The absence of the Seleka had left a vacuum — the prospect of genocide had given way to an ethnic cleansing of the area.

From a population that once stood at more than 100,000, there are by some estimates as few as 2,000 Muslims left in Bangui today.

It wasn't until well after the cleansing of Muslims was underway that the UN Security Council voted in April to approve a peacekeeping mission in the country. According to UN and diplomatic sources, the delay was due to an already overstretched Department of Peacekeeping Operations, as well as pressure from the African Union to let it try its hand at solving the crisis. The US had also reportedly expressed concerned about the cost of a mission.

By the middle of 2014, the country was effectively split between territory controlled by the splintered remnants of the Seleka and areas occupied by the equally fragmented anti-balaka militias.

Djotodia stepped down in January, and today interim President Catherine Samba Panza oversees an overwhelmed and weak central government with few resources or reliable security forces. A $10 million donation from Angola to her administration has led to charges of embezzlement among government officials. Samba Panza meanwhile has been criticized for letting former belligerents take posts in her government.

A UN panel of experts estimated this week that at least 3,000 people died in the conflict between December 2013 and August of this year — a number that they conceded is conservative, and which observers say is much less than the true toll. Over the past two years, untold numbers have been killed and buried unceremoniously, or have fled and perished in the country's vast bush country.

Despite CAR having been decertified under the Kimberley Process — which seeks to prohibit the sale of so-called "blood diamonds" — the panel found that an estimated $24 million in diamonds have been spirited from the country for sale abroad since December. Former Seleka fighters in the north of the country have taken to taxing mining and agriculture, among other sectors of the economy.

The anti-balaka, once welcomed as protectors from the Seleka, have meanwhile largely devolved into marauding criminals. In early October, a Pakistani peacekeeper with MINUSCA was killed in Bangui during fighting between Christians and the city's remaining Muslims. On October 16, peacekeepers killed six anti-balaka members in the capital.

Though the foreign troop presence is strongest in Bangui, it's in towns like Dekoa, near the shifting and vague line separating the country's two enclaves, where lawlessness continues to run most rampant.

"Dekoa has been a flashpoint between anti-balaka and Seleka for a number of months," Evan Cinq-Mars, research analyst at the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect told VICE News. Neither group exists as a cohesive military force anymore, he said, but fighters from both sides remain dangerous.

In Bambari, a contested town roughly 235 miles northwest of Bangui, revenge attacks have mounted one after another, claiming the lives of dozens. On October 1st, in an apparent response to the killing days earlier of a Muslim civilian, Amnesty reported that "a mixed group of Seleka and armed youths attacked a camp for displaced persons in Bambari, killing five civilians." A week later, seven Muslims were emptied out of a car and murdered.

"They captured a bunch of people, both Christians and Muslims, and they let all of the Christians go, including the driver. All of the Muslim men whom they caught were killed," Saidu Daouda, the car's owner, told Amnesty. "They undressed their bodies to humiliate them, and cut them into pieces, chopping off their hands and feet."

Attacks by members of the Peulh ethnic group have affected villages around Bambari. Amnesty says that thousands have fled the fighting, and the toll in regions farther away from the areas where peacekeepers are based remains unclear.

The violence continues in spite of what the UN panel determined was only a small influx of weapons into the country over the last year. Though some elements have more advanced arms, in many instances attacks are carried out with machetes and antiquated hunting rifles. A UN arms embargo put in force last December appears to be having its desired effect — but Cockburn believes it also makes the peacekeeper's shortcomings all the more glaring.

"How can the international forces allow that sort of flagrant presence of armed groups to continue?" asked Cockburn. "There has to be a more proactive approach, and they need to arrest the leaders."

But with only one functioning jail in Bangui — a prison that has seen multiple breakouts — it's not clear where Central African or foreign forces will be able to lock up offenders.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford