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Lawless Northern CAR Has Few Pockets of Security

Northern Central African Republic has large areas controlled by rebels, and road bandits, intercepting vehicles, harassing civilians, and sometimes kidnapping them for ransom or killing them. The undermanned military has little positive impact. There are a few pockets of security, however, established by French peacekeepers as well as what are called auto-defense groups. VOA's Nico Colombant has more in this the first installment of a five-part series on neglect and challenges in the Central African Republic.

Armed villagers on the main road between the capital Bangui and the northern town of Bossangoa, show where they say road bandits called Zaraguinas recently established a camp fire, before trying to loot the village and kidnap civilians for ransom, while blocking off the road with a tree trunk.

But this time, Abou Augustin explains, as he walks down the main road with a swagger, fighters from a newly-formed self-defense group, basically vigilantes, fought back with bullets in their rifles, and what they say is the protection of magic bracelets, potions and amulets on their bodies.

Augustin, the leader of the self-defense group, locally called an auto-defense group or anti-Zaraguinas, says they were able to kill three of the road bandits, and chased the rest away.

One of the members of the group fires off a shot, making a few of the village residents skittish.

Jean-Bertrand, a 24-year-old student, is one of the few men here not carrying a rifle. He is here to help with harvesting in the fields, but has not brought any of his books here, because he says he would not want to get them stolen.

A translator explains Jean-Bertrand is thankful for the work of the auto-defense group. He says he was once kidnapped by former mercenaries who fought for President Francois Bozize during his rebellion.

The armed men, who seemed to be foreigners to him, asked for food and munitions, and threatened to kill him if he did not provide them with what they needed.

The student said when the village asked for the military's help after their mayor was killed in a previous attack, soldiers arrived drunk and took advantage of the situation, by stealing chickens and goats, asking for money from local Muslim businessmen and roughing up women.

The military commander for this northern region Andre Kada refused to be recorded for this report.

At the time of the interview, there seemed to be just him and an aide at the military barracks in Bossangoa, as well as goats chewing on grass, while a dozen men worked on an addition to the commander's nearby home.

Colonel Kada said because there are many bandits and rebels active in the region, he has found it more effective for his soldiers to blend into the local population, wearing sweat suits, trying to gather information about the whereabouts and movements of illegal armed groups.

He says the last time he sent soldiers on patrol into rebel territory several of them died. He said tracking down the Zaraguinas is nearly impossible.

He called the auto-defense groups young boys, and said they were doing a good job.

The prefect, or highest government authority in the region, Gabriel Baipo, admitted police give auto-defense groups ammunition, but said it was necessary as security forces were overstretched.

Baipo says the government also gives them some money, without specifying the amount, as well as some provisions.

In another part of northern Central African Republic, an area which was briefly overtaken by rebels in 2007, French peacekeepers go out on a security patrol.

The French army has been stationed in Birao since the rebel attacks, but it now operates under the banner of a European Union mission also securing refugees and displaced people in Chad. Birao is geographically very close to the Darfur conflict as well.

The commander of the 200 French soldiers, Thomas Guerin, explains his mission.

"My mission in Birao is to carry out a safe and secure environment. We have to present a deterrent force in the area, by patrolling daily in the whole area of the responsibility of our detachment," he said.

Guerin says in the area around Birao, the main problem is poachers who operate in nearby national parks and attack civilians to steal provisions.

On this day, as soon as rain starts falling heavily, the patrol mission is abandoned. The French soldiers, who are a contingent with expertise in ski patrols, head back to their base for hot coffee and tea.