BANGUI, 25 March 2013 (IRIN) - A rebel-led weekend coup in the Central African Republic (CAR) took place against a backdrop of worsening humanitarian conditions in many parts of the country, with access to affected populations severely restricted.
The Séléka rebel group overran the capital, Bangui, on 24 March, putting President François Bozizé to flight and naming Michel Djotodjia as the new head of state.
"With all offices and most stores looted it will be difficult to evaluate needs. Bangui has no electricity or water. We need to have security and for the population to stop looting," Amy Martin, who heads the Bangui branch of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told IRIN on 25 March.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the "unconstitutional seizure" and called "for the swift restoration of constitutional order."
"UN and NGO staff are concentrated in the UN compound. We are expected to evacuate staff, non-essential [staff], as the security is not in place and looting continues, with sporadic gunfire in the streets," said Martin.
A few days before the coup, Martin told IRIN: "In general, the political and security environment is deteriorating as the Libreville Agreements [a peace accord signed on 11 January] are not gaining any traction."
"The agreed conditions are not being respected by either side: release [by the government] of prisoners, the quartering of armed forces by Séléka. There are more rumours of additional former rebel groups to join the Séléka coalition. All remain very uncertain and unpredictable," she said.
On 20 March, the UN Security Council condemned Séléka attacks in the area of Bangassou and the surrounding region, "and the threat of a resumption of hostilities."
"Séléka now controls three-quarters of the country," said Margaret Vogt, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for CAR, several days before the capture of Bangui. She added that rebel members of the government of national unity - which parties agreed to form in the January peace deal - had decided to withdraw from the government and had gone "back into the bush".
The rebels had issued an ultimatum, threatening to resume fighting if their conditions - including the release of political prisoners and the withdrawal of foreign soldiers - were not met.
Humanitarian access limited
The rebels' taking of the town of Bangassou on 12 March, in breach of the January peace agreement, had led to a reduction in humanitarian access to populations in need of assistance.
"The current advancement of the Séléka to the southern town of Bangassou has effectively cut off a major hub for humanitarian actors' access to the southeast, affecting 300,000 people already suffering from six years of LRA [Lord's Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group] attacks. Since the beginning of the crisis in December, humanitarian access has been limited to about 33 percent of the areas under Séléka control," stated OCHA in a 12 March press release, adding that Séléka now controls a large part of the country, home to over 1.5 million people or 34 percent of the total population.
On 15 March, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warned that "renewed fighting in Central African Republic was threatening the civilian population in the southeast of the country and compromising UNHCR's access to refugees and internally displaced people."
"As is always the case in these kinds of situations, as long as there isn't a total cessation of hostilities, the humanitarian crisis will continue and worsen," Pazougou Fulgence, a sociologist at the University of Bangui, told IRIN.
According to OCHA's Martin, humanitarian access has been a constant challenge: "Insecurity prevents free circulation of people, and limits movement between major towns. Looting of organizations' offices, equipment and stealing of vehicles has hindered operations in the field for humanitarians. Lack of protection for civilians limits their freedom of movement, with harassment and other exactions of violence," she said.
"With the rainy season fast approaching and very poor road infrastructure, [access] will reduce even more, especially to the more remote regions of the southeast and northeast of the country."
Latest in series of crises
The Séléka offensive, which began on 10 December 2012, is the latest in a series of crises in CAR, leading to an increase in civilian protection needs and heightening the risk of food insecurity.
Tens of thousands of people in CAR were already in humanitarian need due to past crises, especially in the east. The crises have resulted from a number of factors, according to Kaarina Immonen, the UN Deputy Special Representative for CAR, including "recent conflict, attacks by unknown or uncontrolled armed groups, violent acts by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, and continued banditry in parts of the country".
The crises have increased the number of people in need, their level of need and the cost of supplementary interventions, according to CAR's Prime Minister Nicolas Thiangaye. "Civilians have become victims of serious human rights violations: murders, rapes, looting and robberies," he said.
As of 12 March, the Séléka offensive had, according to OCHA, left some 175,000 people internally displaced, with at least 29,000 others seeking refuge in neighbouring Chad and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An estimated 166,000 children were also out of school. These numbers could increase following the taking of Bangui.
Commenting on the impact of the current crises in CAR, Special Representative Vogt said, "At the best of times, the record in CAR was not good, but it is exponentially worse."