Rebels clash with villagers in CAR town

Framing the deserted streets, the burned roofs of Bossangoa's destroyed neighbourhoods are a stark reminder of the violence that has recently unfolded in this Central African town.

Bossangoa's residents have fled in three directions: Christians have occupied the Catholic Church, Muslims a local school, and the Fula people, a distinct Muslim group, have taken over an airfield.

It is the latest sign of a worrying new turn in the increasingly sectarian conflict between the area's Christian majority and fighters from the former Seleka rebel alliance who are largely drawn from the country's Muslim minority.

All around Bossangoa, Christian vigilante groups are springing up, bent on defending their villages from further atrocities.

'We want the return of the old president'
Armed with homemade guns, machetes, or simply holding clubs, these villagers proclaim themselves "ready to die" to defend their land from the relentless attacks by the fighters. "Our women and girls were raped," a villager told AFP on condition of anonymity. "They took everything, even our grain, and we no longer have anything to eat. Our children have no drinking water, and we live in the bush like animals," he said, in a voice shaking with fear and anger.

Bossangoa is situated in the heartland of supporters of Christian former president François Bozizé, ousted in March by Seleka leader and current President Michel Djotodia, who is the first Muslim to hold the position.

Djotodia declared he was disbanding the rebel alliance that brought him to power on September 13, but in Bossangoa early this week fighters remained in place. For the last 10 days, clashes between armed villagers and fighters formerly of the rebel alliance have already claimed 100 lives, according to the presidency's own figures.

"We are suffering on our own land and we will not stand by and let that happen, that's why we are rebelling," the vigilante group member said. "We are fighting against the Seleka alliance and already we have put them on the back foot. We want the return of the old president."

Villagers fleeing their homes
Six months after the coup, reports of widespread rape, child soldier recruitment and weapons proliferation prompted UN chief Ban Ki-moon to say the country needed the world's "urgent attention".

Bossangoa is essentially lawless, with the only figure of authority found in the form of local Seleka commander Mahamat Salleh.

"The military is going to take action to put an end to these overzealous armed groups," he said, while admitting that he had no idea of the whereabouts of 500 of the 1 200 men under his control.

The escalation poses new problems for relief organisations, who have counted 18 000 rural inhabitants fleeing their homes for the town in search of greater safety.

Charity supplies taken
Charities that have not yet left the area have dealt with a steady stream of refugees – and corpses.

"We found a lot of bodies in the bush, in abandoned houses, in the river," said David Namgbeama, the head of the Red Cross in the town. "Our base was stripped bare, our supplies taken, even the body bags which we were burying people in and the stretchers," he said.

Namgbeama's team have buried 100 people since the clashes began, but many other dead could not be reached, leaving them to a gruesome fate.

"[They] became food for the pigs because we couldn't get there after the Seleka rebels' attacks … when we searched the town for bodies to bury, these people threaten us, even shoot at us sometimes," he said. – AFP

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