IMC head of mission, Stéphane Grégoire, said a 30-strong armed group stole an IMC vehicle in the town of Ouanda Djale on the afternoon of 22 December. He said the same group headed south to Sam Ouandja, again targeting IMC the following morning, absconding with two armed vehicles and a satellite phone. IMC has not reported any casualties from the incidents, but evacuated its Sam Ouandja staff by UN helicopter to Birao, capital of the northeastern region of Vakaga. Fourteen IMC personnel were flown to Bangui on 24 December.
Grégoire said he had no idea who was behind the attack, but pointed out that IMC had performed a similar evacuation from Sam Ouandja in December 2008. "When the dry season starts, from December until May, there are numerous acts of banditry in this part of the country," he told IRIN.
"Basically, that is part of our job. It is risk-taking and we are including these risks in our activities." Grégoire said there had been no hint that IMC would be targeted.
IMC has been active in Vakaga since 2007, providing primary healthcare, targeting acute malnutrition and running a protection programme. In Sam Ouandja, IMC has worked with both the host population and with hundreds of Sudanese refugees, who arrived from neighbouring Darfur in May 2007.
Grégoire said IMC wanted to resume operations in Ouanda Djale and Sam Ouandja as soon as possible after assessing the risks. "Humanitarian needs are tremendous in what is the most impoverished part of the country," he said. "An international organization like IMC makes a substantial difference to the health status of the population."
The rebel Union for the Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) said its forces had clashed with armed elements in Ouanda Djale and Sam Ouandja. UFDR Vice-President Selemane Alchimene said two UFDR men had been killed in an incident in Ouanda Djale on 22 December, while the UFDR had killed three of the original raiding party in Sam Ouandja.
There has been no independent confirmation of casualty estimates provided by the UFDR. "I have no idea if the group behind all this was a movement or not," Alchimene stressed, saying it was too early to identify the perpetrators.
The UN Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT) deployed peacekeepers in Sam Ouandja on 14 December to protect Sudanese refugees after fighting between the UFDR and an armed group on the road between Sam Ouandja and Ouanda Djale. The UFDR later alleged that a small group of heavily armed Sudanese refugees had targeted an UFDR unit, killing two UFDR fighters and losing one of its own men.
Alchimene accused the refugees of harbouring hard-core military elements, who engaged in banditry and poaching. He called on the UN and local authorities to carry out a systematic disarmament of the Sam Ouandja refugee camp, which shelters more than 2,500 refugees. He accused the UN of automatically siding with the refugees and warned that MINURCAT troops were incapable of policing the region effectively.
Relief organizations have been exposed to significant risks in the CAR in recent weeks. Two French aid workers from Triangle NGO were kidnapped in Birao and taken to Sudan. Subsequent information on their whereabouts or condition has been confined to a few ultimatums and messages from a shadowy group, the Falcons for the Liberation of Africa.
Speaking before the latest incidents in Vakaga, the new UN Humanitarian Coordinator, Bo Schack, told IRIN that access for NGOs in the CAR was still relatively good. While noting the impact of the Birao kidnappings and the vulnerability of NGO vehicles in conflict situations (two were reportedly in rebel hands before the rebel attack on N'Délé), Schack said the UN and NGOs had benefited from a good dialogue with key actors, including armed men.
"Generally speaking, we have not had a situation where the impartiality and respect of the humanitarian workers were not being followed," Schack emphasized. He noted that the UN and some NGOs had stayed in N'Délé following the fighting and said this had been a crucial gesture of confidence for the local population. But Schack also warned there were limits. "We need to take into consideration staff security. Sadly, as we have seen in other situations in the world, it's not something we can just leave alone and say we stay on in all circumstances."