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January 07, 2014

Relief Workers Scaling Up Efforts to Reach Displaced in CAR

by Pamela Dockins

The World Food Program and the U.N. refugee agency have launched an effort to scale up emergency food distribution to thousands of displaced people in the Central African Republic.  Reporter Nick Long is at the distribution site, near the airport in the capital, Bangui.

For weeks, an estimated 100,000 civilians have been camping out near the Bangui airport, seeking refuge from violence.

Reporter Nick Long tells VOA that on Tuesday, workers with the UNHCR and the World Food Program began what they hope will be ten days of food distribution to civilians.

Long said it was something that relief workers have been attempting to do since violence erupted in the CAR in early December.

"They have been trying since then to get food to these people but each time they've tried -- they've tried several times -- the crowd got out of control, there was violence.  They had to call it off," he said.

Long said relief workers have also stepped up efforts to get aid to civilians in more remote regions, north of the capital.

"What often happens is people flee their villages, which are usually close to roads, because the armed men that they are afraid of will be coming probably by vehicles, and they set up makeshift settlements in the bush and they try to survive there, where they may not have clean water and they certainly won't have much in the way of health facilities," he said.

The CAR has endured ten months of widespread chaos and violence since mostly Muslim Seleka rebels overthrew President Francois Bozize last March.  Much of the fighting since then has been between ex-Seleka rebels and Christian militias known as anti-balaka.

France and the African Union sent additional peacekeepers after communal violence broke out in Bangui in early December.  But, the unrest has continued.

Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N.'s undersecretary-general for political affairs, has warned that continued unrest between Muslims and Christians could easily spiral into all-out sectarian conflict.

"Several countries including Cameroon, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal repatriated tens of thousands of their citizens, the vast majority of whom are Muslims.  This is the first time in the history of the CAR that people, on account of their religion, have felt obliged to leave the country for fear of their lives," said Feltman.

The CAR's humanitarian situation has been deteriorating at an alarming rate.  Feltman says more than half of the country's 4.4 million people are in need of assistance.