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Northern CAR Faces Violence From All Sides

By Uma Ramiah
21 March 2008

The northern Central African Republic has been caught up in spiraling regional violence. The country borders eastern Chad and Sudan's troubled Darfur region, and conflicts there have spilled over into the already unstable nation. Rebels from Uganda have now been spotted in the area. Uma Ramiah reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.

The northern Central African Republic is a cauldron of unrest. Bandits and armed militias roam the bush while rebel groups from nearby states, including Uganda's notorious Lord's Resistance Army, are accused of raiding villages and abducting civilians.

Adding to the turmoil, government soldiers from Chad have launched fresh attacks, according to Georgette Gagnon, Africa Director for Human Rights Watch.

"According to our research, civilians are being attacked by soldiers from the Chadian army, who have been launching these cross border raids into villages in northwestern CAR in recent weeks, and this is rather new," said Gagnon. "We documented at least five separate cross border attacks into these villages. The situation there already is quite fragile."

Gagnon says the attacks appear aimed at pushing local residents off land used by Chadian cattle herders, who have crossed the border in search of pasture. New York-based Human Rights Watch is asking Chad's president and other leaders to stop the attacks on civilians.

Separate raids by CAR rebels and bandits, known as the Zaraguina, as well as retaliation by government forces have displaced more than a quarter million people since 2005, according to the UN agency for refugees.

The spreading violence risks plunging the area deeper into anarchy, says Godfrey Byaruhanga, researcher on Central Africa for London-based Amnesty International.

"It is a completely lawless situation with no control by the government, and civilians are without protection," he said. "The abuses are being committed by both government forces and armed groups including bandits, so all of them have been involved. All the armed groups, the government forces, have been involved in killings, abductions and torture of civilians in the area."

The European Union is sending some troops to northern CAR as part of a broader effort to stabilize the region, but Byaruhanga says the small force is inadequate.

"One, the deployment has been very slow," said Byaruhanga. "Secondly, the force will only deploy in the northeastern part of CAR close to the Sudanese border when we know that civilians in virtually the whole of northern CAR are at risk and are being attacked, killed and displaced on a daily basis. So this EU force is unlikely to protect the vast majority of civilians in northern Central African Republic."

Nicole Henze, head of the CAR mission for Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, says there is also a lack of humanitarian aid, and aid workers in the area have also come under attack.

"For MSF and other international agencies working here, I believe it is the same thing,"said Henze. "We face the same problems the population faces. That is especially the roadside banditry, that is affecting us very much. It is simply insecure to travel on the road."

Last week, a woman was shot dead while traveling in a Doctors Without Borders ambulance. Henze says providing healthcare is getting harder as the country becomes more unstable. Many people are still living in the bush, she says. They are afraid to go back to their villages.

The country has faced nearly a dozen attempted coups in the last ten years. President Francois Bozize, who seized power in his own coup in 2003, has signed peace deals with two rebel groups in an effort to gain control of his shattered country. So far, security analysts and humanitarian workers say these have produced little in the way of progress.

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