BANGUI: Rudimentary weapons taken from Christian extremist militias by French troops in the capital of the Central African Republic were piled up on the ground, near the body of a young man whose ears were ripped off.
“He was a Muslim from here, named Abaka. They killed him in the courtyard of his house,” a Christian neighbor, Benjamin, told AFP.
“They” referred to “anti-balaka” [anti-machete] vigilantes who fiercely target Muslims in Bangui on the pretext of hunting down ex-rebels from the Seleka coalition.
Sporadic shots could be heard Thursday around the PK-5 business hub of the capital, where numerous Muslim-owned shops attract looters and anti-balaka forces, who are kept at bay by armed Muslims and remaining Seleka forces.
But night and day, residents from the Muslim minority, like Abaka, are cut down by anti-balaka forces armed with machetes, hammers, slings and spades.
“We need to cover the body,” said a soldier of France’s Operation Sangaris, consisting of 1,600 troops who work alongside an African Union peacekeeping force currently 5,500 strong.
About 20 French soldiers sought to prevent scores of people from looting the property of the murdered Muslim.
But several looters were already busy. “Don’t come close, stay where you are and back off,” a soldier yelled at a youth, but when the soldier stepped just three meters away, the looter came past, carrying a wooden door, while another followed with a hosepipe.
Though few in number, the soldiers were holding dozens of youths at bay, half-hidden by tall grass behind the dead Muslim’s property. It was impossible to tell whether they were anti-balaka forces, would-be looters or hooligans.
“This isn’t normal,” Benjamin protested. “Sangaris wants to stop us from looting!”
By the roadside, the owner of a shop named “L’Arche de Noe” [“Noah’s Ark”] took advantage of a few moments’ peace to shut up his premises with a padlock, but the curious kept gathering in their hundreds.
“We won’t tell you 10 times,” a soldier warned the new arrivals. “Get over to the other side of the road.”
Coming from the airport zone, where the French troops and the AU’s MISCA force are based, an African military ambulance sped by with a wailing siren. Warning shots rang out as French soldiers fired over the heads of the crowd.
A score of French troops backed up by two armored vehicles Thursday threatened looters in the Yangato district near the airport with the use of force unless they departed.
“Disperse or we will use force against you,” the platoon commander announced by megaphone to a crowd seeking to pillage Muslim property.
“Any man who commits extortion is an enemy of the peace.”
The threat was affective, though determined looters lingered, waiting for the French troops to leave.
Interreligious violence has claimed thousands of lives and displaced a million people in the population of 4.6 million, yet such clashes are unprecedented in the poor, landlocked country.
They erupted when former strongman Michel Djotodia, brought to power by Seleka forces in March last year, proved incapable of reining in his fighters, whose atrocities against Christians prompted the emergence of the anti-balaka and a spiral of violence and hatred.
In one district lay the body of a young Christian, killed according to local people because anti-balaka fighters mistook him for a Muslim.
“He looked like a Muslim with his curly hair and prayer beads around his wrist,” witness Victor said. The dead man’s legs, sticking out from under the cloth that covered him, were deeply cut above the ankles, “to make the blood flow faster,” according to one commentator.
“This can’t go on. Things are getting out of hand. It must stop,” Victor said softly.
The wife of the victim and one of his sisters were weeping. “I told him not to go out,” cried the bereaved spouse, throwing her arms up to heaven. Relatives and neighbors put the body on a cart and embarked on a slow funereal procession.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported Thursday that in Bangui, “our teams are treating large numbers of people for injuries that are the result of extreme violence including maimings from attacks and lynchings.”
“Last week we treated 200 people ... for violence-related injuries, 90 of whom needed lifesaving surgery, MSF said in a statement, adding that it planned to extend its medical and humanitarian work into the interior, “where our emergency teams report that some villages remain deserted and people are terrorized.”
The new interim president, Catherine Samba Panza, has appealed for hundreds more troops and a full United Nations “peacekeeping operation.”
The U.N. Security Council responded Tuesday with a resolution giving a planned European Union contingent of 600 men a mandate to use “all necessary force,” while also authorizing an asset freeze and travel bans on the ringleaders of groups blamed for atrocities.