CAR: Clash in northern town of N'délé prompts security fears

News and Press Release
Originally published
N'DELE, 31 December 2009 (IRIN) - Quartier Sultan in N'délé, a town in northern Central African Republic, was badly hit by fighting on 26 November when troops from the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) pushed back an incursion by rebel fighters from the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP).

The CPJP announced the occupation of N'délé, the provincial capital of Bamingui-Bangoran, which lies 670km north of Bangui, but witnesses say the attack lasted a matter of hours and that only a few of the invading party had firearms, most carrying machetes or knives.

"This place had a problem, but it is now over", said a FACA sergeant, talking confidently, despite a warning glance from a nearby officer. "We have spoken to people and most have come back. Those who have not returned must have their reasons."

But that optimism is not widely shared. Well-armed troops are very visible around the town. There is no official curfew, but most residents are off the streets at dusk. The local market begins at around 9am, traders wary about the safety of their produce. The road north remains hazardous, with rumours of a strong rebel presence just a few kilometers out of town.

There is considerable confusion and anger about the events of 26 November, with strong criticism of rebels and government.

François Egue has been head of N'Délé's Quartier Artisanal, near the market, since 1957. He said the local authorities had been holding meetings, trying to re-establish calm and confidence, but was sceptical. "We do not know what is going on", said Egue. "All I can say is that myself and my community here are not at ease".

Egue's daughter, Lydie, who has a drinks business in town, said the CPJP attack came out of the blue. "These rebels could come back at any time", she warned. "We are living in a ghost town for now. Trade is really down. The depot where I buy beer has been closed down. The town is empty at night."

Lydie Egue said she knows little of the CPJP. "If the rebels have a problem with the government, they should go and negotiate, not take it out on civilians."

Who are the CPJP?

Emerging in late 2008 and not a signatory of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the government, the CPJP remains an unknown quantity. Its regular bulletins, sent from an unknown location, denounce the government, play up military gains and call for the mediation of the Sultan of N'délé.

Lydie Egue, like others, says she has heard reports that the CPJP enjoys considerable support from the Runga, a long-established Muslim community with a strong presence in N'délé and the surrounding area.

Other residents go further, talking of fifth columnists and accomplices who facilitated the CPJP's entry on 26 November and whose subsequent flight from the town is evidence of their complicity.

But market trader Mohamed Ahmed said the Rungas now faced a campaign of hostile propaganda and stigmatization. "There are divisions here", he said. "After 26 November, you got people saying: "the Muslims were behind all that", and you even had kiosks being looted.

Security fears

There has been a serious rupture in supplies, because traders don't want to buy new merchandise for fear of being robbed." Suppliers from Bangui were staying away for now, waiting for security to return, he added.

Yusuf Hassan, a Runga small-holder was one of those who headed for the bush on 26 November. Returning to the Quartier Sultan for the first time in several weeks, he said he intended to stay, that he owed it to his family of 18 to move back into the house. "But I still do not feel fully safe here", he warned.

NGOs, including Solidarités, International Medical Corps (IMC) and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) have a high profile in N'délé and the surrounding area. The events of 26 November led some to suspend their activities, while others remained in place.

UN Humanitarian Coordinator Bo Schack said the UN's decision to remain in N'délé was important in helping restore stability. "Within the UN system, all the UN staff remained in place", Schack told IRIN. "The authorities were deeply appreciative that we stayed throughout the events and this had a calming influence on what could have been an even bigger exodus from the town."

The town and surrounding villages live mainly off agriculture. The principal crops include beans and manioc. There is a diamond industry, with artisanal diggers working several sites outside town and a few diamond-buying houses in N'déle itself.