13 November 2006

Central African Republic: Concern As Civilians Flee, Government Denies Rebel Capture of Third Town

Bangui — Humanitarian workers have expressed concern over the situation in northern Central African Republic (CAR), where anti-government rebels have claimed to have seized a third town, with civilians fleeing their homes to avoid being trapped.

"The humanitarian situation is more fragile than ever," Toby Lanzer, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in the country, said on Monday. "Increasing violence is not what the people of this country need."

Although no official government report has so far been provided on the situation in the north, there are fears the humanitarian situation could deteriorate as people seek refuge in other towns.

Independent sources in the region say the unrest in the north since late October has displaced at least 10,000 civilians. This number could not be confirmed by humanitarian organisations, however, because they do not have a presence in the rebel-controlled towns.

The national Red Cross said it had no details on the situation in the north. "We have no contact with people in the region," Alphonse Zarambaud, the Red Cross national programme coordinator, said. "We are still trying and we will put out details as soon as we get them."

In the latest incident, some residents fled their homes on Saturday in the town of Sam-Ouandja, which the rebel coalition, the Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement (UFDR), claimed to have captured.

"Despite appeals by rebels asking civilians to stay calm, some have fled to neighbouring cities," Abakari Ousseine, a resident of Sam-Ouandja, told IRIN on Monday from the northern town.

Sam-Ouandja, a mining town of at least 10,000 inhabitants in the northern prefecture of Haute Kotto, is not easily accessible during the rainy season as the road to the town has not been maintained for years.

Ousseine said although the rebels had not mistreated civilians, "they have collected all Thuraya satellite phones from mining companies and individuals" to "secure their position and to prevent any communication with the regular army".

The UFDR leader, Michel Detodia, has said President Francois Bozize has ruled on an ethnic basis since seizing power from President Ange-Felix Patasse in March 2003. "Many people from other ethnic groups and different political parties are ostracised and banned from participating in the management of the country," he said.

On Monday, Bozize's spokesman, Cyriaque Gonda, said there was no rebel activity in Sam-Ouandja. "People should stop propagating false information to confuse the population," he said.

Gonda was reacting to a declaration by the rebel coalition that they had captured the town. "We are now in full control of the town," Abakar Saboune, the UFDR spokesman, said. Saboune said their next objective was to capture the mining town of Bria, which is the capital of Haute-Kotto.

Sam-Ouandja became the third town seized by the rebels since the conquest began two weeks ago. They seized Birao, capital of Vakaga Prefecture near the border with Sudan, on 30 October and took Ouadda-Djallé, 110 km south of Birao, on Friday.

On Monday, army officials seemed to contradict Gonda's statement that Sam-Ouandja was not under rebel control. A major, who requested anonymity as he is not an authorised army information officer, said, "These rebels have captured this town since yesterday morning and as far as I know no action has been taken to dislodge them."

He added there were no soldiers in Sam-Ouandja when the rebels arrived in the town.

Meanwhile, army troops were sent on Sunday to try to stop the rebel advance. Military officials said the troops deployed comprised elements of the national army and those of the Central African States Economic Community, known by its French acronym CEMAC.

Political observers say the army is not well equipped and trained to stop the rebels. A diplomat in the capital, Bangui, who declined to be named, said, "The CAR needs the help of a foreign force to get rid of the assailants."

The diplomat added that the army needed better training to rid it of its "disruptive behaviour".

Since the rebel crisis broke out in late October, Bozize has appealed to France for help. However, France has so far not responded. Bozize has accused neighbouring Sudan of supporting the rebel coalition, saying the attackers who seized Birao came from Sudan's troubled Darfur region.

On Saturday, a Sudanese delegation, led by Planning and Cooperation Minister El-Tijane Salleh Fedail, arrived in Bangui and held talks with Bozize on the rebel crisis.

In an interview on national radio, Fedail denied Sudan's involvement in the rebel activity in the north. Members of the delegation suggested the two countries should together ensure security along their 1,100-km border.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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