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UNHCR: Thousands Flee New Surge of Violence in CAR

FILE - Muslim refugees listen to a radio at the Catholic church in Carnot, Central African Republic, where they are taking shelter from Christian militants, April 16, 2014.

The U.N. refugee agency reports thousands of people are fleeing an upsurge of violence between Muslim ex-Seleka and Christian anti-Balaka militias in the Central African Republic. Some of the civilians have fled across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The UNHCR said the latest surge of violence in the Central African Republic was linked with seasonal movements of livestock and was triggered by clashes between herders and farmers on one side and the anti-Balaka on the other. It said some herders have turned to ex-Seleka armed groups for protection.

UNHCR spokeswoman Karin de Gruiijl said people caught in the middle of the fighting have no choice but to flee their homes.

“There are hardly any local authorities left. There is no police. There is no gendamerie. So many of the militias, both anti-Balaka and ex-Seleka, have free reign. We also understand that there is fighting among themselves. There is fighting between ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka and there is just general lawlessness and the civilian population is being caught in the middle,” she said.

Since January, the UNHCR reported an estimated 30,000 people have fled the area, mainly to the towns of Batangafo and Bambari. The agency said those who recently arrived in Bambari were destitute and distraught.

Gruiijl said gunmen entered some of the sites for displaced people, threatening them and extorting money.

She said the situation in Congo was not much better. The UNHCR has registered more than 19,000 refugees from the CAR since December, many of them children.

She said refugees living in makeshift shelters were vulnerable to armed groups who reportedly were infiltrating the country.

“Our teams have received alarming reports of sexual violence committed by these armed elements crossing over from CAR. On the 9th of February, three refugee girls were kidnapped by armed elements who crossed into the DRC close to Dula and took them back to CAR. One of the girls managed to escape and she told us that they were raped. She is now receiving medical treatment. Two other girls are still missing,” said the spokeswoman.

Gruiijl said UNHCR staff feared many more cases of rape were going unreported.

She said the humanitarian needs for the refugees were enormous and the UNHCR was organizing emergency assistance, including mobile clinics, and access to potable water for the refugees, while preparing their transfer to a safer site.