"There has been a shift from religious to ethnic violence"
By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR, March 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Clashes between militias near the Central African Republic town of Bambari could soon escalate into full-blown conflict, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes and triggering a humanitarian 'catastrophe', aid agencies said on Friday.
Central African Republic has been plagued by conflict since March 2013, when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power, triggering reprisals by Christian "anti-balaka" militias.
Yet fighting has flared in recent months around Bambari, in the centre of the country, between two rebel groups formerly belonging to the Seleka alliance that have fallen out in a fight for territory and control of illicit tax revenues.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) said last week it stopped fighters from carrying out an attack in Bambari, but aid agencies fear imminent conflict in a town home to 200,000 people - a quarter of whom have already been uprooted by violence.
"There has been a shift from religious to ethnic violence, and the fighting has worsened around Bambari since November," Jerome Kouachi, emergency specialist at the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"If there is full-blown conflict in Bambari, it will lead to mass displacement ... it would be a catastrophe," he added.
Clashes between the two rebel groups, the Popular Front for the Renaissance of Central African Republic (FPRC) and the Union for Peace in Central African Republic (UPC), have also hindered the delivery of humanitarian relief, agencies say.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said providing health care around Bambari was challenging due to the dislacement, and that malaria was a major health concern with so many people living in camps or sleeping in the bush.
More than two thirds of the country's health facilities have been damaged or destroyed by the violence since 2013, MSF says.
Aid agencies are stretched thin across the Central African Republic, with violence between armed groups also plaguing Kaga Bandoro in the north, and Ouham-Pendé in the northwest.
Some 420,000 people have been uprooted within the country, nearly 500,000 have fled to neighbouring countries, and more than 2.2 million, around half the population, need aid, said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
"It is hard to coordinate the humanitarian response given the conflict across country," said OCHA head of office Joseph Inganji. "The aid community is prepared, but with the situation so volatile, it is difficult to know when violence will erupt."
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)