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Thousands of CAR Refugees Ask to Return Home After Coup - 2003-03-19


The United Nations says thousands of refugees from the Central African Republic have asked to return home after Saturday's coup. A prisoner release is also reported.

The United Nations says refugee leaders have asked for help to repatriate roughly 5,000 people to the Central African Republic.

The refugees are now living in camps in the two neighboring countries called Congo - the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The U.N. refugee agency says the refugees housed in Betou, in the northern Republic of Congo, appear very anxious to return to their home country and take part in the national reconciliation dialogue promised by the coup leader, General Francois Bozize.

General Bozize has said that a national council composed of political parties and former heads of state will lead the country's transition back to democracy.

Agency officials say refugees in the other major center, near the northern DRC town of Zongo, are also willing to return, but only after they are sure about their own security.

Many of the refugees fled across the borders in the aftermath of an earlier coup attempt in 2001. The agency says some of them have been tried in absentia for their alleged involvement in the coup, and given hefty jail sentences.

But they look likely to receive an amnesty when they return. The French news agency, AFP, reports that General Bozize has freed a group of prisoners who were jailed by the man he overthrew. According to AFP, the group includes several local journalists the ousted president had accused of being threats to state security and supporting the rebels.

The rebels took control in the Central African Republic Saturday, while President Ange-Felix Patasse was out of the country.

A widespread looting spree followed the coup. General Bozize's followers have tried to clamp down on looters during the past few days.

But the U.N. World Food Program says a massive, hungry crowd overran its warehouse in the capital, Bangui, and stole more than 1800 tons of food. Other humanitarian agencies report that it has become very difficult to work in the country in the current unstable security situation.

The Central African Republic is one of the world's poorest countries, despite its vast mineral wealth. It has been plagued by a string of coup attempts. The international community has widely condemned the latest overthrow, but several neighboring central African countries have indicated they are willing to work with the new government.

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