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CAR Sectarian Violence Rising

In this Aug. 28, 2014, photo, Aminatou Bello a 24-year-old Muslim, who was attacked by an Anti-Balaka, lies on a bed in Boda, Central African Republic. More than 5,000 people have died in sectarian violence in the Central African Republic since December, according to an Associated Press tally. (AP Photo/Sylvain Cherkaoui)

The human rights group Amnesty International says U.N. peacekeepers must take bold action to protect civilians in Central African Republic. It says there’s an escalating wave of sectarian violence throughout the country.

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Amnesty’s Steve Cockburn says despite U.N. peacekeepers being deployed in September, the killings and displacement of civilians are on the rise.

“Over the last month we’ve seen the situation deteriorate somewhat in Central African Republic. [In] early October there was an upsurge in violence in Bangui where over 30 people were killed in fighting between different armed groups and international forces in which, of course, the civilian population suffered from,” he said.

Cockburn is Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa.

He said, “During our recent mission to CAR, we uncovered a very significant upsurge in violence also in the central area of the country – around the town of Bambari and Dekoa where there’s a really quite a volatile mix of increasingly heavily armed groups -- whether they are former Seleka soldiers, armed Peuhl raiders or anti-balaka, who are fighting each other vying for power and also ultimately preying on the population.”

The mostly Muslim former Seleka rebels helped topple former President Francois Bozize in March of 2013. The Seleka then attacked Christian communities, which led to the rise of anti-balaka forces and revenge attacks. Added to the mix is the nomadic pastoralist Peulh ethnic group, which has sided with the Seleka.

The U.N. mission does not have its troops fully deployed yet – and Cockburn says it’s struggling to protect civilians. But he said,” If the mission is to have any credibility…. bold measures are needed.”

“First of all, they need to increase the troop capacity. The U.N. Security Council resolution talked of up to 12,000 peacekeepers and police to be deployed in Central African Republic. Two-thirds of that capacity at present. They simply do not have the capacity to cover enough of the country and to cover those areas where they’re being deployed.”

He said, for example, the U.N. troops were not able to deal with attacks and revenge attacks in and around Bambari – some 380 kilometers northeast of Bangui. He said the troops may be stretched too thin or out-gunned. But at times, they have been effective.

“We do have examples elsewhere where when they have been present, for example, in the town of Dekoa. There were 14 civilians killed in an attack in a Catholic church. But a much bigger massacre was prevented when the U.N. and French forces stepped in. Which shows that, when they are able to react in time, they are able to do things,” he said.

Besides attacking each other, the armed groups are reported to have committed banditry.

“One of the most common things that we heard from populations in Bangui, for example, was that whereas previously perhaps they may have seen some of the anti-balaka as people who are defending their communities from attack, they now very much see them as those who are preying on their communities. They are no longer able to attack Muslim communities, who have largely, but not exclusively left. So they’re now attacking the Christian communities and taking their goods, burning their houses and their shops,” said Cockburn.

Many Muslims have been displaced in CAR and now live in isolated communities around the country. Cockburn said some are protected by peacekeeping forces, but described their existence as difficult.

“There are significant worries about what will happen to those populations in the long term. We did hear some reports of some Muslim communities coming back, but certainly not on a large scale and certainly nothing that would replace the huge exodus that we saw earlier in the year.”

Amnesty International supports the International Criminal Court’s decision to open an investigation in Central African Republic. It says armed groups have been committing abuses with impunity. In July, Amnesty published a report naming 20 high and low level commanders that it says should be investigated for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Cockburn said, “All of those are essentially still at large. There is a major desire within the population to arrest those leaders of the anti-balaka and of Seleka. Largely, people know where they live. People know where they are. They are of course well armed. They will defend themselves. But we think it’s incumbent on the international community and on the CAR authorities that those leaders are pursued, investigations are opened and impunity is put to an end.”

CAR has a transitional government that Amnesty International says should play a leading role in ending the violence. But it adds that a lot more international support is needed to do so, including financing, logistics and security.