CAR: Armed actors exploiting vacuum in north, says Amnesty International

NAIROBI, 26 June 2007 (IRIN) - Violence in Sudan and Chad has placed at risk hundreds of thousands of civilians in northern neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR), Amnesty International has warned.

"The northern areas [of CAR] have become a free-for-all - a hunting ground for the region's various armed opposition forces, government troops, and even armed bandits - some of whom come from as far away as West Africa to kidnap and loot in local villages," the human rights watchdog said in a statement on 26 June.

In these areas, it noted, armed CAR opposition forces kill civilians who do not support or refuse to join them, while government troops kill civilians they accuse of colluding with the armed groups and burn down entire villages during reprisal attacks.

Preliminary findings of a recent study in the area, AI said, indicated a near complete vacuum of authority to protect civilians - allowing free rein to a host of armed actors.

"The entire area has become a cauldron of violence and fear - threatening to destabilise even further what is already one of the most unstable and dangerous areas in the world," AI researcher Godfrey Byaruhanga said.

"Civilians are trapped in a lose-lose situation, with many so afraid that they are actually fleeing into Sudan, Cameroon and southern Chad - effectively moving from the frying pan into the fire out of sheer desperation," he added.

According to AI, it met families whose children - some as young as three years old - had been kidnapped and held for ransom by armed bandits known as Zaraguinas or 'coupeurs de routes'. "Some parents have had to pay a ransom of up to two million CFA Francs (US$4,000) for a child," it noted.

"This situation is too dangerous and simply cannot wait," said Byaruhanga. "The people of the CAR should not be left to live or die at the whim of the Sudanese or Chadian governments, especially when the government has agreed to the deployment of an international force."

Some humanitarian work resumes

Meanwhile, the International Medical Corps (IMC) is to resume operations in CAR's Vakaga Province, an area beset by an ongoing rebellion, rampant banditry and the spillovers of the conflicts in Chad and Sudan.

"The humanitarian crisis in this part of the [CAR] seemed all but forgotten," Ben Hemingway, IMC senior desk officer for Chad, Sudan and CAR, said.

According to the IMC, many people in the province fled their homes and were living in the bush after they had been caught in heavy fighting between several armed factions. Only five percent of children are immunised against measles and fewer then 20 percent of the population have access to safe water sources.

In a related development, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has called on parties to the CAR conflict to ensure humanitarians can safely access people in need.

MSF, with other organisations, suspended operations in the region after the killing of one of its staff on 11 June. "In the past five months, MSF's mobile clinics - which provide primary healthcare to 6,553 people per month - have been suspended 29 times due to insecurity," it said.