Central African Republic: Protests Rock Capital After Overnight Clashes
After a weekend of looting and sectarian violence, anti-government protesters in Bangui clash with U.N. peacekeepers.
BANGUI, Central African Republic — Hundreds of demonstrators, some armed with machetes and AK-47s, marched in the capital city of the Central African Republic on Monday before clashing with U.N. peacekeepers guarding the presidential palace.
The protesters demanded an end to the 20-month-old transitional government and the exit of French troops, which have struggled to tamp down inter-communal violence alongside a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force. Protesters said the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) should be reinforced so that they can assume responsibility for the rapidly deteriorating security situation.
The demonstrations come on the heels of 48 hours of bloody sectarian violence in Bangui. Dozens of homes and offices were looted or burned over the weekend, including the offices of several international NGOs. At least 36 people are confirmed dead and nearly 100 wounded, although sources at medical NGOs caution that some casualties may still be unaccounted for, because roadblocks have made it harder to transport patients to hospitals.
Sporadic shooting has continued throughout the day on Monday.
“I am extremely concerned about the high number of people killed during these clashes, as well as the number of people injured, houses burned and by this new wave of displacement,” Interim U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Marc Vandenberghe said in a statement Sunday. “This renewed situation represents a big step backwards on the return plan for internally displaced persons.”
Violence erupted on Saturday, after the body of a Muslim taxi driver was discovered near the airport in Bangui. Angry Muslim youths retaliated by assaulting a nearby Christian neighborhood, sparking a confrontation with Anti-Balaka militants. Thousands of residents were forced to flee their homes, adding to the roughly 27,000 people who are already displaced in the capital.
More than 6,000 people have been killed and 800,000 displaced — either inside or outside the country — since a largely Muslim rebel coalition known as the Seleka toppled the government of Francois Bozize in 2013. The Anti-Balaka emerged in response to the Seleka’s abuses, but proceeded to carry out abuses of their own. At the end of 2013, U.N. officials warned of the possibility of genocide, but the violence has since tapered off as many Muslims fled to the northeast of the country or to refugee camps in neighboring Congo, Chad, and Cameroon.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. gives “full support” to current President Catherine Samba-Panza and her transitional government.
“We call upon those who engaged in violence, or are considering further violence, to lay down their weapons and return home,” Kirby said in a Monday statement. “Those guilty of committing or inciting violence, including leaders of Anti-Balaka militias and ex-Seleka groups, must be held accountable for their actions.”
Monday’s protests began when mainly Christian protesters, along with Anti-Balaka fighters, converged at a central arrondissement in Bangui known as PK Zero. From there, they attempted to march on the presidential palace, but were repulsed by Rwandan U.N. peacekeepers. Witnesses reported that Rwandans opened fire on the crowd, wounding at least two people.
“The protesters were advancing on the presidency, but the Rwandans started shooting,” said a source present at the demonstrations. “I saw two people who had been shot. They were carried away on motorcycles, but I can’t say whether or not they were dead.”
Agence France-Presse reported three people were killed by U.N. peacekeepers, but Foreign Policy could not independently confirm this.
Some of the protesters have established a small camp in PK Zero, where they say they will remain until Wednesday. “I call for disobedience,” said Gervais Lakosso, who leads a coalition of civil society organizations that is calling for unrest. “We want the immediate reinstatement of FACA and the immediate departure of the French Sangaris forces. We also call for [U.N. mission] to fulfill their mandate.”
Other protesters called for Catherine Samba-Panza, who is out of the country attending U.N. meetings in New York, to step aside.
The demonstrations came after a long night of violent lawlessness in Bangui. Anti-Balaka fighters reportedly attacked the national police headquarters, while troops of bandits looted offices and homes throughout the city. The offices of the French Red Cross, U.N. World Food Program, and the French medical NGO Première Urgence were all looted, along with those of other aid organizations. Some international humanitarian workers were evacuated to the U.N. base, but national staffers were left to fend for themselves, according to NGO workers.
“Our offices were attacked for almost two hours last night by armed individuals,” said Philippe Adapoe, the chief of mission for the Catholic Organisation for Relief and Development Aid in Bangui. “Since our walls are high and thick, they struggled to penetrate. But in the end, the premises were looted. We asked the [U.N.] and the [government] gendarmes to evacuate our personnel, but since there were no expatriates — just national staff — they did not come.”
François Sangsue, the head of office for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in Bangui, said numerous NGOs had been looted in his neighborhood. “The situation remains very tense,” he said, adding that the ICRC has reduced the number of staff working at the community hospital.
“What is happening now is related to criminality, to banditry,” said a U.N. official who was not authorized to speak to the press. “People are just taking advantage of the sectarian clashes to see what they can take.”
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, Sept. 28, 2015: The transitional government of the Central African Republic is 20 months old. A previous version misstated that it was 9 months old.