DAKAR, SENEGAL — The International Federation for Human Rights [FIDH] says heavily-armed Seleka rebels have murdered at least 400 civilians with near impunity since seizing control of the Central African Republic on March 24. FIDH says it also has documented numerous rapes and forced disappearances connected to the rebels, as well as the continued use of child soldiers, during a research mission to the CAR in July.
State prosecutor for the Central African Republic, Alain Tolmo, said Wednesday that he has opened an investigation into the murder of five people whose bodies were found with their hands and feet tied in the Oubangui River in the capital, Bangui, on July 16 and 17.
He said two of the bodies have been identified and claimed by the families. He said this clearly was murder, and this heinous crime will not go unpunished.
Witnesses said the victims appeared to have been the missing passengers of a car that was stopped by Seleka rebels at a checkpoint in Bangui on July 13. Witnesses said rebels took the passengers away after finding T-shirts for ousted president Francois Bozize in the car.
A relative of one of the victims, Abdul Karim, spoke to VOA at the morgue as family members sobbed behind him. Karim said they just found the body in the morgue. He said that even if someone has committed a crime, he understands there are legal procedures. He said to have him disappear, then find him like this and not know why he was killed, however, is sad.
Witnesses say Seleka fighters also kidnapped an ex-government soldier on July 17 in the capital. His relatives say they found him dead a few hours later. Witnesses say the fighters had shot the soldier's brother in the head when he tried to intervene in the grab.
The violence in the capital comes amid what the International Federation for Human Rights calls a continued nationwide state of "anarchy" since the March 24 rebel takeover.
The Federation, known by its French acronym FIDH, has released preliminary findings of its 10-day research mission to the CAR this month.
FIDH Africa Director and Researcher Marceau Sivieude said rebels are committing serious abuses against civilians that could qualify as war crimes.
He said researchers estimate that Seleka rebels have killed at least 400 civilians since the takeover. He said these murders took place as part of looting, extortion activities and kidnaps for ransom. He said there also are a lot of revenge killings against civilians resisting Seleka that have included firing on protestors in Bangui and razing villages.
FIDH says a "reliable source" has documented as many as 82 rapes by rebel fighters during the first month after the takeover but says it is suspected there were more.
Since the rebellion began in December, the Seleka rebel coalition has always been an unruly hodgepodge of armed groups in northern CAR.
Growing Seleka presence
It is difficult to get a reaction from Seleka to accusations, as the fighters are generally loyal to their individual chiefs. Rebel leaders in the capital have previously blamed abuses on what they call "fake Seleka" and "uncontrolled elements."
FIDH says Seleka's ranks have grown considerably since the takeover from an estimated 5,000 fighters to as many as 20,000.
Sivieude says opportunist people from the CAR, as well as fighters from South Sudan and Chad, have joined to take advantage of looting. He says being in Seleka has become a way to make money by looting and extorting money or goods from the population at checkpoints. He says Seleka rebels harass civilians, demanding their money, livestock or crops.
Sivieude says crimes are taking place in near impunity, with only 16 arrest warrants issued by early July for primarily minor offenses.
Sivieude says civilians are living in "total insecurity" with no one to protect them. He says government soldiers and police deserted during the coup. He says the regional FOMAC force, with just 1,000 soldiers on the ground in the CAR, has an insufficient mandate and not enough manpower.
FIDH is calling on the U.N. Security Council and the African Union to put in place an international force to protect civilians in the CAR.
Jose Richard Pouambi contributed reporting from Bangui.