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Sectarian Clashes Kill 24 in Central African Republic Capital

BANGUI, Central African Republic—The murder of a Muslim taxi driver in the capital city of the Central African Republic set off a spasm of bloody sectarian violence, leaving dozens dead or wounded in a stark reminder that the situation in the country remains extraordinarily fragile despite months of relative calm. The violence took a heavy ...

Cameroonian solider who served with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) rally to demand the payment of their salary and other allowances by their government, on September 9, 2015, in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde.   AFP PHOTO / RENNIER KAZE        (Photo credit should read Reinnier KAZE/AFP/Getty Images)
Cameroonian solider who served with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) rally to demand the payment of their salary and other allowances by their government, on September 9, 2015, in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde. AFP PHOTO / RENNIER KAZE (Photo credit should read Reinnier KAZE/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGUI, Central African Republic—The murder of a Muslim taxi driver in the capital city of the Central African Republic set off a spasm of bloody sectarian violence, leaving dozens dead or wounded in a stark reminder that the situation in the country remains extraordinarily fragile despite months of relative calm.

The violence took a heavy toll, with at least 24 people killed on Saturday and nearly 100 wounded, according to hospital and medical NGO sources. The unrest continued into Sunday, prompting complaints that French and U.N. peacekeepers didn’t act fast enough to halt the killing.

“The events of [Saturday] and [Sunday] are very serious. We count many crimes against property and persons,” Security Minister Dominique Said Paguindji said in an interview. “We will deal with this situation diplomatically to avoid civilian casualties that would add to the death toll.”

The violence reportedly kicked off after a Muslim taxi driver was found dead in the streets of Bangui. Christian militiamen known as the Anti-Balaka had allegedly abducted him the previous day, after he had delivered a passenger to the airport.

“When the [taxi driver’s] body was brought to the mosque…the people were immediately angry,” said Mohamed Fadoul, the president of the Muslim self-defense committee in PK5, one of the last remaining Muslim strongholds in Bangui. “I tried to keep the young people under control, but there is a part of the population that I do not control.”

Muslim youths responded to the killing of the taxi driver by attacking the nearby Christian neighborhood of Miskine with machetes, AK-47s, and grenades. They burned a church, a health center, and a police station, prompting Anti-Balaka fighters to rush into the area. Thousands of people fled their homes in the subsequent fighting; others remain trapped behind closed doors.

“There was shooting all day and there are burning barricades,” said Bienvenu, a resident of Miskine, who asked to be identified only by her first name. “I’m stuck at home with my children. For now, we cannot go out.”

The Muslim neighborhood of PK5 has also seen a mass exodus in the last 24 hours, according to residents. “The neighborhood is deserted, people have fled to the bush or to IDP camps,” said Ali Issène, a resident of PK5, who used the acronym for internally displaced persons. “There is no one in the market, no one doing business, no one in their homes.”

The Central African Republic has been in turmoil since December 2012, when a largely Muslim rebel coalition known as the Seleka began a calamitous march on the capital. The Seleka drew heavily on mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, who looted and pillaged as they went. By the time they overthrew President Francois Bozize in March 2013, however, they were already beginning to splinter.

United by little more than their distaste for Bozize, the Seleka managed to hang onto power for only nine months, during which time the movement’s fighters engaged in wholesale plunder of the capital. Soon, Christian self-defense militias calling themselves Anti-Balaka – a play on the words for “AK” and “machete” in Sango, the national language – had sprung up to counter the Seleka.

The violence quickly took on a religious tinge, as the Anti-Balaka forced the remnants of the Seleka back into the heavily Muslim northeast of the country. At least 6,000 people have been killed and more than 800,000 displaced. Of the roughly 90,000 Muslims that lived in Bangui prior to the crisis, only a few thousand remain. Nearly all of them lived in PK5 before the latest round of bloodshed.

The last major outburst of violence in Bangui occurred on September 9, when Muslim youths tossed hand grenades into crowds in three separate places around the city. At least two people were killed in that incident.  

On Saturday, helicopters could be heard buzzing overhead during the night, as French and U.N. peacekeepers attempted to quell the fighting. New shots rang out at daybreak on Sunday, heralding the start of a second day of violence.

The 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission, known by its French acronym MINUSCA, condemned the “outrageous” killing of the taxi driver as well as the “unacceptable retaliatory actions which threatened to put Bangui in an unjustified spiral of violence.”

It has mobilized additional peacekeepers, who, in collaboration with French and EU forces, are attempting to protect civilians and deescalate the situation, the mission said in a statement on Saturday.

But civilians in the Miskine neighborhood expressed frustration at what they saw as an inadequate response from MINUSCA. “The peacekeepers arrived very late and did not intervene,” said one resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If they don’t act, we want the U.N. peacekeepers to go back to their countries. They are here to protect the population, not watch us die.”  

Another resident, who also declined to give his name, said the U.N. peacekeepers did manage to prevent the violence from spilling into adjacent neighborhoods. “The clashes were not extended because U.N. forces prevented the spread,” he said.

Some have taken to spray-painting their displeasure on the upturned cars and other detritus used to halt the flow of traffic during the clashes. “This morning there were barricades all over the city with slogans against France and the MINUSCA,” said Paguindji, the security minister.

“Non à la France,” reads one such barricade on Avenue Barthelemy Boganda, a main artery in Bangui, where MINUSCA is headquartered.

Image credit: Reinnier KAZE/AFP/Getty Images

Anthony Fouchard is a French journalist covering Africa.

Ty McCormick is the Africa editor at Foreign Policy. @TyMcCormick

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