Old fears and pre-election violence flare in Central African Republic

* Residents worry as violence flares ahead of CAR election * Government says former president Bozize plotting coup

* UN troops on high alert, disperse armed rebels By Antoine Rolland

BANGASSOU, Central African Republic, Dec 23 (Reuters) – I smail Dicky says he is afraid of political tensions and violence ahead of Sunday’s general election in Central African Republic (CAR), a sentiment that reflects the anxious mood of a country desperate for an end to years of bloodshed. Rwanda and Russia have sent military aid to help the government restore calm, as security forces and United Nations peacekeepers battle rebels who have occupied towns and roads outside the capital Bangui.

Russia, seeking to increase its influence in Africa, is an ally of President Faustin-Archange Touadera, a relationship often seen as a threat to the influence of former colonial power France in the French-speaking country. “We are scared of the elections,” said Dicky, who lives in Bangassou, a town marked by a brutal mass killing in 2017.

“We want peace. We want security,” said Dicky, in his late 20s, adding the country cannot afford more of the tit-for-tat ethnic and religious violence that has plagued it since 2013. In some of the worst bloodshed, mostly Christian and animist militia known as the Anti-Balaka attacked Bangassou in May 2017.

During a three-day siege, they assaulted the town’s Muslims, who sought refuge in the mosque. The Muslims were held hostage under heavy gunfire until the intervention of U.N. peacekeepers. The Red Cross counted at least 140 dead when the siege ended. Walking around the ruins of what was once the mosque, Dicky pointed to heaps of rubble where women of the town used to pray. The men’s section was also destroyed.

“We lost our parents, our belongings, our homes,” he said. FIVE COUPS, NUMEROUS REBELLIONS

Central African Republic, rich in diamonds, timber and gold, has been racked by five coups and numerous rebellions since independence from France in 1960. Slightly larger than France, but with a population of only about five million, it has been gripped by insecurity since the 2013 ousting of then-President Francois Bozize by mainly Muslim Seleka fighters.

Heavy-handed rule and alleged human rights abuses by the Seleka government prompted reprisal killings from Anti-Balaka militias drawn from the Christian minority. The country has failed to stabilise, despite the signing of several peace deals between warring militias, the election of Touadera in 2015, and the presence of over 12,800 uniformed U.N. peacekeepers.

Touadera, seeking another mandate, is favourite to win the presidential election in a field of 17 candidates. Electors will also vote for a new parliament. The latest crisis flared after the country’s top court rejected several candidacies for the election, including that of former president Bozize. The government has accused Bozize of plotting a coup with several militia groups, an accusation Bozize’s party has denied.

Some opposition parties have called for the election to be postponed due to the latest violence. This has been rejected by the government, and also by the United Nations, which has placed its troops in the capital and other regions on high alert and has promised to protect civilians and secure the vote. But for another Bangassou resident, Ali Idriss, the insecurity was worrying.

“We are not safe because we know that yesterday’s perpetrators are still strong. They’re there in the neighbourhoods, they’re bragging, they’re still destroying our buildings under construction, it’s scary,” he said. “You meet the former executioners regularly. Yes, we are together,” he laughs nervously.

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