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Kidnappings Threaten Fragile CAR Peace Process

FILE - Former hostage Claudia Priest gestures after being greeted by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, left, and her son upon her arrival at the Villacoublay military airport, near Paris, Jan. 25, 2015.

The Central African Republic's long-awaited reconciliation process is being threatened by a spike in kidnappings of officials and government ministers by factions of the former Seleka rebels and anti-balaka militias.

The kidnappings began the day after the United Nations arrested major anti-balaka leader Rodrigue Ngaïbona, better known as Andjilo, in Bangui. A group of anti-balaka kidnapped two humanitarian workers, then asked for Andjilo's release.

Politician and negoiatiator Cyriaque Gonda said the kidnappings surprised everyone and disrupted the peace process, since they happened on a day when the parties involved were preparing experts and teams for consultations.

A day later, a different group abducted a U.N. worker, but she was released the same day. The two humanitarian workers, however, were held for five days before being released.

Negotiators said the main difficulty was that there was no clear leader to talk to, and anti-balaka groups were not agreeing with each other.

Former hostage Claudia Priest confirmed that, saying the wardens where the captives were held opposed the abductions and didn't understand the reason for them. She said the wardens argued against holding the captives but were told by other anti-balaka that they'd be killed if the hostages were released.

Divisions among anti-Balaka factions are not new, but the depth of the disagreement was further exposed during the kidnappings.

After releasing the humanitarian workers, the same anti-balaka group kidnapped a government minister and again asked that the group's leader be freed.

The anti-balaka are not the only ones to have abducted people. In the northern C.A.R., ex-Seleka groups kindapped a team of officials that had been sent to run local political consultations, an initative meant to be the first step in the peace and reconciliation process.

The group of ex-Seleka said that their views were not taken into account. But they released the officials after a few hours.

C.A.R. transitional president, Catherine Samba Panza, was quick to condemn the kidnappings. She noted that the armed groups come from the base of the Central African population and said they should not be attacking their brothers and sisters. But Samba Panza acknowledged the C.A.R. crisis could not be fixed overnight. The country does not have defense forces anymore, and order can not be restored with a magic wand, she said.

Reseacher Evan Cinq-Mars of the New York-based rights group the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect said accepting the demands of these armed groups would not help resolve the crisis and could encourage abductions.

"It is important that these individuals that are arrested [and] have been identified — not only by the government, but also by members of the international community — for perpetrating serious crimes are not just simply traded away and released," Cinq-Mars said. "That would send a very poor message to other armed groups that they can conduct similar tactics, and this has been an issue in the past in C.A.R."

Meanwhile, in several cities across the country, political consultations have been cancelled because of security concerns.