CAR: Calm returns to southwest after MLC, army standoff

BANGUI, 7 March (IRIN) - Calm returned on Thursday to the southern Central African Republic (CAR) town of Mongoumba and nearby villages, after a five-day standoff between government troops and their Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC) allies from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
"There was a misunderstanding, but everything was settled yesterday," Jacquesson Mazette, the CAR minister of state for the interior, told IRIN on Friday.

Witnesses said the standoff began on Sunday when government troops in Mongoumba, 189 km south of the capital, Bangui, stopped two river boats carrying MLC militiamen withdrawing from the CAR with goods they had looted. The troops seized the boats, then disarmed and arrested the passengers.

After subsequently being released, the militiamen crossed the River Oubangui for the DRC, only to return on Wednesday with reinforcements. They then looted the homes of the town's 10,000 residents and its Roman Catholic Mission.

"Ten thousand people have run away into the bush and to Betou," Alphonse Kossi, a priest and the national executive secretary-general of Catholic relief agency, Caritas, told IRIN on Friday.

Betou is south of the Republic of Congo's border with the CAR, on the right bank of the Oubangui.

The MLC and government troops exchanged fire during the episode, and UN-sponsored Radio Ndeke Luka quoted "clerical sources" as saying there was heavy mortar shelling of the town from the DRC side of the river. No casualty figures, if any, are known so far.

Kossi said the MLC fighters had finally left Mongoumba on Thursday, and Caritas was considering how best to help the displaced people of Mongouba.

Up until now, Mongoumba had been free of the fighting that has engulfed parts of the country. This week's standoff occurred as the MLC continued its pull-out from the CAR after helping government troops push back rebels loyal to the former army chief of staff, Francois Bozize.

Meanwhile, the government has denied reports that its army had lost control of Bossangoa and Bozoum, towns respectively about 305 km and 284 km northwest of Bangui. MLC fighters, along a road at a point 12 km from the centre of Bangui, had seen troops coming from Bossentele, 295 km northwest of Bangui, but thought they were retreating from Bossangoa.

"I assure you that neither Bossangoa nor Bozoum are in rebel hands," Mazette said.


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