UN Refugee Agency: 'Catastrophe of unspeakable proportions' in Central Africa

UN Refugee Agency: 'Catastrophe of unspeakable proportions' in Central Africa

BANGUI - Agence France-Presse
UN Refugee Agency: Catastrophe of unspeakable proportions in Central Africa

People wait during the speech of French Defence Minister and new president of Central African Republic during a visit in the city of Mbaiki (south-west) in Central African Republic, on Feb 12. AFP photo

The head of the U.N.'s refugee agency said Feb. 11 he had witnessed "a humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions" during his visit to the Central African Republic.

"Massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing. Shocking barbarity, brutality and inhumanity have characterised this violence," Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement.

He also said the country's new government is incapable of effectively protecting its citizens. His statement clashed awkwardly with a speech on Feb. 12 by the CAR's new transitional president, Catherine Samba Panza, who vowed war against a mostly Christian anti-balaka ("anti-machete") militia whose recent attacks have led to a mass exodus of Muslims.

"We are going to go to war against the anti-balaka," she told a crowd in the town of Mbaiki, south of the capital Bangui.

"They think that because I'm a woman, I'm weak. But now the anti-balaka who want to kill, will themselves be hunted," she said.

The anti-balaka emerged last year after a mostly Muslim rebel group seized control of the country. They have gone on the rampage in Bangui and elsewhere, largely targeting Muslims, since the rebels were ousted from power last month.

During her speech, Samba Panza was joined on stage by French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

France has grown increasingly strident in its calls for action against the anti-balaka, fearing that the violence could lead to partition of the country. But the U.N. refugee agency said much will be needed to stem the attacks, and spoke of "dramatic underfunding" of relief operations.

"The international community must come together for a significant and immediate increase of the forces and police on the ground," said Guterres.

"Our resources are overwhelmed and ability to do more hampered. The Central African Republic is falling through the cracks of international attention. This cannot be allowed to happen." Even a huge airlift launched on Feb. 11 by the U.N.'s World Food Programme is unlikely to make a dent in the humanitarian crisis. The first cargo aircraft, loaded with 80 tonnes of rice, landed in Bangui in the early afternoon. There will 24 daily supply drops to the city.

"This is a rather exceptional operation, our biggest emergency air operation in a long time, bigger than for Syria and the Philippines," WFP spokesman Alexis Masciarelli told AFP. But he admitted the operation "would not completely solve the problem" in CAR, where 1.3 million people - more than a quarter of the country's population - is in need of food assistance.

The WFP says a total of 1,800 tonnes of rice will be flown in from Douala in Cameroon, enough for just 150,000 people.

Ethnic cleansing warning

Aid is most desperately needed in camps where more than 800,000 have sought refuge from the sectarian violence that has erupted in the country.

Locals say they are now confronted with a new menace of food scarcity and soaring prices with the flight of Muslim shopkeepers.

"Now the hard part begins," said Herve Songo, a teacher in the capital Bangui. "Now that all the Muslim shops have been looted, ransacked and destroyed, prices have increased substantially." That is if there is anything left to buy.

The humanitarian situation in the CAR has deteriorated since a coup in March 2013 led by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels plunged the country into chaos.

Seleka leader Michel Djotodia was pressured into giving up the presidency on January 10 by the international community, triggering a wave of retaliatory attacks against Muslims. In a report this week, Amnesty International said the violence had led to a "a Muslim exodus of historic proportions."

"Anti-balaka militias are carrying out violent attacks in an effort to ethnically cleanse Muslims in the Central African Republic," said Joanne Mariner, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International.

In her speech in Mangui on Feb. 11, Samba Panza rejected the "ethnic cleansing" label. "I don't think there is any religious or ethnic cleansing. This is a security problem," she said.

An African Union-led MISCA mission has so far failed to curb the violence or the exodus of civilians, mainly to neighbouring Chad and Cameroon. MISCA has around 5,400 troops in the country, while France has deployed 1,600 soldiers under Operation Sangaris.

"International peacekeeping troops have failed to stop the violence," said senior adviser Donatella Rovera.

"They have acquiesced to violence in some cases by allowing abusive anti-balaka militias to fill the power vacuum created by the Seleka's departure." The most lethal attack documented by Amnesty took place on January 18 in Bossemptele, where at least 100 Muslims were killed. Women and old men were among the dead, including an imam in his mid-70s.