BANGUI, 1 December (IRIN) - Hundreds of civilians have been fleeing towards neighbouring Sudan after air strikes by French jet fighters against rebels near the northeastern town of Birao.
Residents in the region said those fleeing on the road to Sudan were women and children. Most of the men, fearful of being targeted as rebel fighters, fled into the bush instead. Some have been there without proper food but it is not known how many there are.
"For the past three days I have been looking for my two wives and six children who ran into the bush," Marzouk Hassane, a Birao businessman, said on Thursday. He said the air strikes began on Monday.
The chief of operations of the rebel Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement (UFDR), Diego Yao, said on Thursday: "The French used six jet fighters and four helicopters to pound our position in Birao."
The French military attaché in Bangui, the capital, declined to give his name or comment on reports of French military action. France had said it would provide only logistics and military equipment to the CAR army.
Yao said the air strikes had forced his men to abandoned Birao and flee into the bush. He also said a large number of the town's residents had been killed by the air strikes. This information has not yet been confirmed by independence sources.
"The casualties are high but we need an independent organisation to assess this," Yao said.
A CAR army colonel in Bangui said only rebels had been targeted by the national and the French armies.
"The military operation in the region is aimed at chasing away the rebels and it is a pity that some civilians were caught in the fighting," said the colonel, who did not want to be named.
The rebels had seized Birao on 31 October and went on to take Ouadda-Djalle, Ouadda and Sam-Ouandja. They had threatened to take the mining town of Bria, 650 km northeast of Bangui.
After losing these towns, the government appealed to France, its ally and former colonial power, for help. The CAR government said France provided logistical support to the army in the drive to retake Birao, a town of 30,000 residents.
The army has also retaken Mouka and Oudda.
When the insurrection began, the government blamed Sudan for providing help to the rebels, a charge that the Sudanese government has denied. However, some Bangui-based diplomats said CAR's northern rebellion was linked to the fighting in Darfur, Sudan, where pro-government militias have been battling a guerrilla force in the west of that country.
"We cannot disassociate the CAR crisis from that of Chad and Darfur," a diplomat, who requested anonymity, said.
[Displaced civilians flock to town targeted by rebels: http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=56358 ]