Bangui — As humanitarian needs mount amid unrelenting violence in the Central African Republic (CAR), getting relief supplies into and across the country is proving to be one of the main challenges for aid agencies there.
The African Union mission in CAR (MISCA) sent troops to the Cameroon border on 23 January to escort trucks carrying humanitarian supplies to the capital, Bangui.
A spokesman for the mission, Eloi Yao, told IRIN a strong escort had left the CAR capital for Garoua-Boulai, the main crossing point for commercial traffic on the country's western border.
The World Food Programme (WFP) said earlier this week that 38 of its trucks had been blocked at the border with Cameroon, along with hundreds of other vehicles, because truck drivers have refused to cross the border following recent fighting.
A Food and Agriculture Organization truck was briefly hijacked on the route from Cameroon in the past few days, and on 17 January a grenade was thrown at a lorry carrying Muslim civilians at Bouar, 120km from Garoua-Boulai, killing 22 people and wounding many more.
WFP's Alexis Masciarelli said on 23 January that it was not clear whether the truck drivers would cross the border even with a military escort, and if not the agency would have to organize an airlift as its food is running out in Bangui.
"Every day we are providing two weeks rations to 500 displaced families at Bangui airport, and we have only enough food for another few days' distributions," he said.
WFP was providing food at other camps besides the one at the airport, but has stopped those distributions for the time being.
The UN humanitarian coordinator in CAR Abdou Dieng said on the 24 January that it was likely aid agencies would be requesting further military convoys in future.
Security needs are critical
"It is vital to secure the supply route from Garoua-Boulai," the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) regional chief of emergencies, Grant Leaity, told IRIN. "If you look at the borders, there aren't any immediate alternatives.
"But in addition to that, we need to highlight the lack of protection for civilians in that whole area," he added.
"We have hundreds of Muslim people inside churches at Boali and Kaloke. Those people are phoning us and asking us to help evacuate them. They are scared for their lives."
Amnesty International reports that hundreds of people, particularly from Muslim communities, have been victims of attacks in that area in the past two weeks.
A witness in Bouar contacted by phone on 24 January told IRIN the largely Muslim ex-Seleka militia had lost one of its "generals" and a "colonel" in an attack by the anti-balaka militia last week, and that it had been shooting indiscriminately at civilians in response.
A group of ex-Seleka had taken the road to Bozoum, where it stole vehicles belonging to the Catholic church, and was continuing its convoy northwards, the source said.
While the ex-Seleka appear to be losing ground in western and northwestern CAR, and have already lost Bangui, they still control the strategic towns of Kaga Bandoro and Bambari in central CAR as well as the northeast of the country, where most of the population is Muslim, security experts told IRIN.
A spokesman for international NGOs in CAR, Jacques Terrenoire of Mercy Corps, told IRIN there are reports of attacks on Muslims in many areas where the ex-Seleka fighters are retreating.
"It's essential to get more security forces on the ground," he said, "to prevent these attacks and to allow humanitarians access. Currently, there are areas where it's too dangerous for our people to work.
"Police and gendarmes are needed more than military, where it's a case of opportunist groups looting and lynching people. The military don't necessarily have the training to deal with that."
Starting to regroup
CAR's police, gendarmerie and army have effectively been out of action since the Seleka took power in March 2013, with most of their elements having fled the country or returned to civilian life, but since the interim president Michel Djotodia's resignation earlier this month, the security forces are re-assembling in Bangui.
About 700 soldiers have been visible, parading at the military headquarters in Bangui in recent days. Others are believed to be fighting alongside the anti-balaka.
A reconstitution of the army might help divert ex-soldiers from armed group activity. Terrenoire said several donor countries have offered to help redeploy CAR security forces, but currently these plans are at a very early stage, as the new president, Catherine Samba-Panza, has only just been elected by a national transitional council.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]