BANGUI, Central African Republic: The rebel-leader-turned-president of Central African Republic said Sunday that he doesn’t have total control over former allies who are accused of killing scores of civilians.
Violence in just the past few days has killed some 400 civilians, prompting a U.N.-sanctioned French military intervention aimed at restoring calm to France’s former colony and preventing it from descending further into sectarian bloodshed.
In the latest abuse allegations, officials from two relief agencies told The Associated Press Sunday that Muslim fighters from the former Seleka alliance that brought President Michel Djotodia to power had attacked a hospital in Bangui, pulling out at least nine wounded young men who were accused of being part of a Christian militia and killing them.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by Seleka fighters, said the wounded men were removed from Amite Hospital in front of horrified medical staff and that the victims’ bodies were found just outside the building.
At a news conference with journalists, Djotodia acknowledged the difficulties of controlling the ex-Seleka fighters, who came from several different northern rebel groups with the common goal of ousting President Francois Bozize from power in March after a decade in office.
“There are allegations that I cannot control my men. ... I only know those who are with me,” said Djotodia, who has traded his former rebel fatigues for a presidential gray suit and black tie. “Those who aren’t – how can I control them? I am not God, I hope. I am a man like you. And this country is vast – 623,000 square kilometers.”
Still, he blamed forces backed by the man he ousted for sparking the recent bloodshed.
Djotodia has formally dissolved the Seleka alliance of rebel groups, and his fighters now consider themselves soldiers in the national army. As hundreds of French troops have arrived to help secure the beleaguered capital, Djotodia has urged his ex-Seleka fighters to get off the streets except for members of the presidential guard. The president reiterated Sunday that national forces would remain in their barracks.
However, the ex-rebels’ spray-painted pickup trucks bounced Sunday over rutted roads around Bangui, particularly in several predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. Half a dozen ex-Seleka fighters sat near a major hospital in the capital Sunday with a pickup truck full of rocket-propelled grenades.
The victims were suspected of being members of a Christian militia that attacked the capital Thursday. That attack unleashed retaliatory violence across the city, and the local Red Cross said nearly 400 bodies had been collected as of late Saturday.
Dozens of unclaimed corpses lay under white plastic sheeting in a cement courtyard outside the hospital. The buzz of flies was deafening and the stench of death overwhelming to passers-by. Officials expected the death toll to rise further.
“We’re sending out five more teams today, as we are still finding bodies several days later,” said Jean-Moise Modessi-Waguedo, head of emergency operations for the local Red Cross. He spoke through a mask covering his face.
French forces fanned out across Bangui Sunday and also had made their way north to the highly volatile town of Bossangoa, where some 40,000 Christians are seeking refuge at a Catholic mission and more than 7,000 Muslims have also fled their homes amid the rising sectarian violence. In addition, thousands of locals have fled to the Bangui airport to seek the protection of French soldiers.
French President Francois Hollande announced Saturday that France was raising its Central African Republic deployment to 1,600 troops – 400 more than first announced for the mission in its former colony.
Later, his office said African Union nations also had agreed to increase their total deployment to 6,000 troops for the Central African nation – up from about 2,500 now, and nearly double the projected rollout of 3,600 by year’s end.
In a sign of the tensions, regional peacekeepers stood guard outside Sunday Mass at St. Paul’s along the Ubangui River. The church set up loudspeakers to broadcast the service as an overflow crowd gathered for the service. As the sermon calling for peace echoed across the lawn outside, women ground cassava with large sticks and sold papaya and dried fish to the hundreds of displaced people camping on the site.
“We are asking Christians to pursue peace and forgiveness, to not seek vengeance or commit reprisal attacks,” said Bangui Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga.
One of the world’s poorest countries, Central African Republic has been wracked for decades by coups and rebellions. At the time of the March coup by Seleka, religious ideology played little role in the power grab.
Seleka are blamed for scores of atrocities since taking power, even tying civilians together and throwing them off bridges to drown and burning entire villages to the ground.
Anger over such abuses has fanned a backlash against Muslim civilians, who make up only about 15 percent of the population.