Geneva — The UN refugee agency is seeking immediate and unconditional access to tens of thousands of refugees and civilians displaced by the recent fighting in the north and east of Central African Republic (CAR), one of the poorest and most deprived nations.
"We believe that these civilians face deteriorating living conditions and that they need urgent and potentially life-saving help," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.
He added that while UNHCR welcomed the one-week ceasefire announced on Thursday during peace talks in Gabon between the CAR government, the Séléka rebel alliance and opposition parties, "We fear that many more people will be affected, including some 700,000 in the capital [Bangui], if full-scale fighting resumes.
It is impossible to give precise figures for the number of newly displaced because of the fluid security situation and lack of access to rebel-held areas, but UNHCR has received reports of thousands of people being displaced in the north and east since the start of the Séléka advance about a month ago. Some 800,000 people were believed to be living in the affected areas when the current crisis erupted.
"We are extremely concerned about the general welfare of displaced civilians, many of whom live under harsh conditions and in remote settlements, as well as of refugees from countries including South Sudan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo," Edwards stressed.
The Central African Republic hosts some 17,000 refugees and 2,500 asylum-seekers. "We call on all sides to respect the human rights of all civilians and to allow humanitarian access to them," the UNHCR spokesman said.
He added that UNHCR was particularly worried about some 2,000 Sudanese refugees in the Bambari camp, in the central part of the country - an area under rebel control. UNHCR is trying to re-establish contact with this refugee population. There were confirmed reports that the UNHCR office there was looted on December 28 after the staff were evacuated. Another UNHCR office, in Kaga-Bandoro, has also been looted.
The current crisis in the country has also led to a small number of people fleeing to neighbouring countries. UNHCR staff have registered 286 refugees from CAR in the Nord-Oubangui region of Democratic Republic of the Congo's Equateur province. "We are also investigating reports that some refugees have arrived in southern Chad," Edwards said in Geneva.
Meanwhile the looting of several World Food Programme warehouses in Bria, Bambari and Kaga Bandoro could cause serious delays to food distribution to refugees in Bambari, Zemio and Batalimo. UNHCR and the WFP are looking for a quick solution for resuming food aid.