At least 10 dead in Bangui ahead of new leader's inauguration

Report
from Agence France-Presse
Published on 22 Jan 2014

01/22/2014 20:21 GMT

BANGUI, January 22, 2014 (AFP) - At least 10 people were killed in fresh clashes Wednesday in the conflict-riven Central African Republic capital, witnesses said, on the eve of new interim leader Catherine Samba-Panza's inauguration.

Violence pitting civilians and Christian militiamen against ex-Seleka fighters of the Muslim minority broke out overnight in central Bangui, near a prison and a military barracks housing the former rebels, they told AFP.

Samba-Panza, who is to be sworn in on Thursday, lives just 100 metres (yards) from the prison.

Witnesses who asked not to be named said they saw the bodies of six former fighters and four Christian civilians near the prison building.

"Four ex-Seleka from the prison were killed by anti-balaka (anti-machete)," said a Western diplomat after the clashes, referring to the Christian self-defence militias set up to avenge Seleka violence.

Medics from the 1,600-strong French peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic tried in vain to save the life of one former Seleka fighter with extensive machete wounds.

An AFP journalist witnessed a crowd of more than 100 Christians celebrate the man's death.

The archbishop of the capital Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapalainga, and its imam, Oumar Kobine Layama, meanwhile lamented while on a visit to Paris that most of the country remains under the control of warlords.

The Seleka mounted a coup in March 2013 and installed their leader Michel Djotodia as the country's first Muslim president, triggering a descent into chaos.

Gunfire could be heard in the area around the Seleka camp and tensions remained high on Wednesday afternoon even after African and French peacekeepers intervened, local residents said.

Soldiers with the 4,400-strong African force MISCA were also forced to intervene Wednesday to stop looting in the north of Bangui.

The latest unrest in the capital, where 1,000 people were reportedly killed last month alone in clashes between Christian and Muslim militias, comes just 48 hours after Samba-Panza's election as interim president.

In her victory speech, Samba-Panza called for an end to the violence and said restoring peace to the impoverished country would be her top priority.

Djotodia stood down on January 10 under intense regional pressure over his failure to stem 10 months of violence that has displaced a fifth of the country's 4.6 million people.

He had overthrown president Francois Bozize in a country with a long history of coups, attempted coups and army mutinies.

Looking to restore a functioning state and heal religious hatred, Samba-Panza said Tuesday: "We have thousands of armed youths, both with the Seleka and the anti-balaka. If we release them onto the street, we will not have solved the problem."

Samba-Panza, whose election by the parliament has been hailed both by Central Africans and the international community, said the new government would have to find ways to provide new opportunities for young people in the resource-rich but desperately poor former French colony.

"It is often out of anger, in extreme poverty and with no future that these young people resort to violent behaviour," she said.

On Monday EU foreign ministers agreed to send hundreds of troops to the country to back up the French and African troops already on the ground.

In Paris, Archbishop Nzapalainga noted that civil servants have not been paid for months and that only two of the country's 36 ministries were actually operational -- the defence and territorial administration ministries.

The scourge of armed groups attacking civilians and extorting money has persisted for years in many lawless areas of the country deserted by police.

Food shortages loom

In Paris, the Bangui archbishop and imam will meet with French President Francois Hollande on Thursday.

"Things are stable in Bangui," Layama, who heads the country's Muslim community, told AFP on Wednesday. "But the warlords still occupy most of the country and lay down the law. ... People are hiding out in the bush because they are afraid."

The two religious leaders urged the international community to support Samba-Panza.

"Everyone must get behind her for the transition to become a reality. We must support her, encourage her, help her," Nzapalainga said.

Samba-Panza faces "enormous challenges" including disarming and billeting the fighters as well as reintegrating them into society, the archbishop added.

But the new president will be totally reliant on foreign funds as the government coffers are empty. On Monday, international donors pledged $496 million dollars (365 million euros) in aid to the country for 2014.

And Nzapalainga noted that because the unrest had forced farmers to skip two planting seasons, serious food shortages loomed.

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