Clerics on a peace mission in CAR
Monsignor Dieudonne Nzapalainga leans forward, frowning. His bulky frame fills the armchair in the London hotel as the latest news agency copy is read to him.
Very bad," he says quietly.
The Reuters reports describes a convoy of more than two dozen vehicles carrying heavily armed Seleka rebels leaving Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), and heading north.
The news fills Bangui's archbishop with gloom: "They needed to be held accountable for what they had done. We cannot have impunity."
His friend and companion on this visit, the imam Oumar Kobine Layama, representing the country's Muslim minority, nods in agreement.
The CAR descended into chaos in March last year, when the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted President François Bozizé. Archbishop Nzapalainga appealed for help from the international community in November, warning that the country was teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Then 65 000 had fled from their homes. Today the total is nearer one million, almost a quarter of the population.
The archbishop and the imam have been touring European capitals, seeking support for their benighted country. In France they met President François Hollande; in London they are being received by the former co-chairperson of the British Conservative party, Lady Warsi.
The religious leaders are appealing to British government for political support to try to halt the killings. "In particular," their letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron reads, "we call on the United Kingdom to support EU [European Union] efforts in a full deployment of Eufor" [the European rapid reaction force].
The UN has warned repeatedly of the danger of a full-scale genocide in the CAR. Nzapalainga says this is a real threat, with Christian and Muslim youths roaming the streets, seeking revenge for previous atrocities. "The two groups are at war," warns Kobine. "And they are led by bandits."
Has the presence of 1 600 French and 4 000 African troops done anything to improve the situation? Yes, both men agree. "If it was not for them the whole country would have been in flames," the archbishop says.
But the situation is complex. Chadian forces are among the African troops who comprise the bulk of the peacekeepers in and around Bangui. They have been closely allied with the Seleka and have been accused of joining them in attacks on Christian communities.
The archbishop and the imam fear the rebels will re-form in the remote northeast and reopen their campaign. They say 10 generals who led the rebellion came from Chad, although they describe them as mercenaries rather than Chadian army officers.
The real problem is that, seen from Paris, the CAR is of only secondary importance compared with Chad. France has had a particular penchant for the Chadians since the former colony came out in support of General Charles de Gaulle during World War II. A French military base is situated in eastern Chad, with troops ready to serve across Africa.
But the religious leaders remain hopeful that the situation can be salvaged. A week ago, Catherine Samba-Panza, a respected businessperson with a reputation for independence, was elected to serve as head of state by the transitional parliament. She is the first woman to become president of the country and the archbishop warns she will not succeed without international support.
"Civil servants have not been paid for the last five months," the archbishop says. "The army needs to be rebuilt so that we can protect ourselves." – © Guardian News & Media 2013