Central African Republic: Year-ender 2002: An uncertain future ahead, even as peacekeepers arrive

NAIROBI, 17 January (IRIN) - Survival must have been uppermost in President Ange-Felix Patasse's mind throughout 2002 as fighting between his forces and those loyal to the former Central African Republic (CAR) army chief of staff, Francois Bozize, gained intensity and heightened tension between the CAR and neighbouring Chad.
Tension between the two countries first arose when in November 2001 Bozize - dismissed on 26 October - and his supporters fled to the southern Chadian city of Sarh after five days of fighting in the northern suburbs of the CAR capital, Bangui. Government troops had tried to arrest Bozize, whom judicial authorities sought to question over a coup attempt on 28 May that the government said ex-President Andre Kolingba had hatched.

Since crossing into Chad, Bangui has accused Ndjamena of allowing Bozize's men to mount cross-border raids into the CAR, provoking repeated skirmishes with the CAR army. Chad denied this while, in turn, countered that CAR had been supporting Chadian dissident Martin Koumta Madji (alias Abdoulaye Miskine), who was also raiding Chad from northern CAR. Chad later granted Bozize asylum out of "humanitarian concern", then deployed troops "to block the infiltration of CAR troops in Chad", a Chadian official said at the time, "but there has been no direct confrontation between the armies of the two countries".

To defuse the tension, CAR Foreign Minister Agba Otikpo Mezode arrived in Ndjamena, the Chadian capital, on 8 January 2002, for talks with his counterpart. Shoring up that effort, eight days later, regional leaders agreed to send a delegation to both countries to prevent conflict. Also, the Organisation of African Unity, the continent's foremost political body, asked the UN Security Council to send back peacekeeping troops to the CAR, where they were deployed in April 1998.

In country, the UN Peace-building Office (known as BONUCA) mounted a three-month campaign beginning 13 March to bring about a culture of peace, national unity, democracy and good government. The effort began in Bangui with a four-day training seminar for the CAR military.

At the bilateral level, Patasse and his Chadian counterpart, Idriss Deby, met in Ndjamena and after two hours announced the immediate reopening of their common border. They also said a bilateral commission of experts and parliamentarians would consider outstanding issues. Also attending these talks were UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General to CAR, Lamine Cisse, and the Libyan minister in charge of African affairs and the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (COMESSA), Abd al-Salam Ali al-Turayki.

Despite the summit, CAR Prime Minister Martin Ziguele told diplomats that on 6 August Chadian troops - backed by ground-to-ground missiles, tanks and heavy artillery - had penetrated 17 km into the CAR and attacked government troops.

Meanwhile, Bozize demanded Patasse's resignation, saying he would remain in exile in Chad until Patasse ceded power.

Diplomatic efforts to overcome the crisis continued. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed on 16 August a one-year extension for BONUCA. The same day Central African leaders set up a commission to review the security situation along the Chad-CAR border. Five days later a joint UN, Chad, CAR mission - headed by Gabon's President Omar Bongo - visited the common border to investigate the recent fighting.

Amidst the flurry of diplomatic peace initiatives in August, the trial of alleged coup plotters resumed in Bangui, after a five-month suspension following a boycott by defence lawyers. The National Criminal Court sentenced Kolingba (as well as his three sons) and 21 associates to death for masterminding the coup. They were sentenced in absentia, having been tried on charges of undermining state security, assassination and destruction of property. In September, BONUCA engaged in efforts to establish a frank dialogue between the public, the government and the military.

On 19 and 20 September fighting broke out again along the border, this time in the Chadian village of Tissi. Chad accused the CAR of responsibility. Notwithstanding this, peace negotiators scored a success when, on 13 October, Togo agreed to grant Madji (alias Miskine) exile. Bozize was granted exile in France.

But just when it seemed this breakthrough would serve to reduce tension, forces loyal to Bozize invaded Bangui's northern suburbs on 25 October. Again, the ruling Mouvement pour la liberation du people centrafricain claimed that Chad had supplied the invaders with both personnel and equipment. Bozize's forces were driven out days later by government troops backed by Libyan forces and those of the Mouvement de liberation du Congo (MLC) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The MLC troops raped and robbed the very people they were supposed to defend, thereby inciting the wrath of Bangui's residents.

In the wake of these actions, DRC nationals in the CAR got jittery. On 8 November, some 750 of them fled to their embassy in Bangui and asked to be repatriated, fearing possible retaliation by angry city residents. Five days later the last of them had gone home.

The government's counteroffensive against Bozize's men then gained momentum. Government troops, backed by the MLC, retook Bossembele, 157 km northwest of Bangui, on 27 November. Damara, 76 km north of Bangui, fell next on 7 December. Bozize's men were on the run.

Meanwhile, a peace offensive by the regional Economic and Monetary Community of Central African States, known by its French acronym CEMAC, made further gains when an earlier decision to send troops to CAR gained more backing. The People's Republic of China delivered US $159,104 worth of military equipment to CEMAC for the deployment of peacekeeping troops. The first of these, a 90-man Gabonese unit, arrived in Bangui on 4 December. They took charge of presidential security and, on 30 December, began street patrols in Bangui.

Coinciding with the arrival of the bulk of the 350 authorised CEMAC troops was the departure from the CAR of those representing COMESSA - from Libya, Djibouti and Sudan, which had been protecting Patasse.

The extent to which the CEMAC forces will be able to keep the peace and restore the country's stability clearly depends on other political factors, one of which will doubtless be the response of civil society and the rebels to Patasse's proposal for national reconciliation talks, which failed to convene in December as planned. So, even as CEMAC forces arrived and a new year was born, CAR still faced an uncertain future.


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