Serious fighting in the Central African Republic in late November 2016 between two Seleka groups left at least 14 civilians dead and 76 wounded, Human Rights Watch said today. Armed groups appear to have deliberately targeted five of the civilians killed during the main clashes in the central town of Bria between November 21 and 23, and nine others in the ensuing days. Three other civilians are missing and presumed dead.
The civilian deaths, which occurred during the most serious violence between Seleka groups since the Seleka fractured in 2014, highlight the need for United Nations peacekeepers deployed in the Central African Republic to exercise their mandate and use force to protect civilians.
“The rising violence in the central regions between Seleka factions is having a predictably grave impact on civilians,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “UN peacekeepers should anticipate these incidents and use force to protect these vulnerable people, as their mandate allows.”
About 485 Peuhl civilians taking shelter in three residential compounds in Bria, many of them women and children, are terrified of revenge attacks because Peuhl comprise the majority of one of the fighting factions. These civilians need the immediate protection of the nearly 250 peacekeepers already in town, Human Rights Watch said.
Between November 28 and 30, Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 civilian victims of the violence, 5 witnesses, 10 local authorities and leaders of the Seleka factions that fought – the Popular Front for the Renassaince in the Central African Republic (Front Populaire pour la Renassaince de la Centrafrique, FPRC), and the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (l’Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC). The fighting left at least 115 combatants on both sides dead.
Tension between the two factions around Bria had been high before the latest violence. In early November, skirmishes erupted between the two groups over control of roads leading to diamond mines around Kalaga, a town 45 kilometers from Bria. Both factions collect “road taxes,” especially in mining areas and on migration routes for Peuhl herders. The FPRC attacked the UPC in Gobolo on November 21, sparking major hostilities.
The UN has 12,870 peacekeepers deployed across the country, including 246 armed forces who were in Bria at the time of the fighting, but they were unable to protect civilians in the heavy fighting. The UN sent additional peacekeepers to the town after the clashes. National security forces, such as police and gendarmes, were not capable of stopping the fighting and sought protection from the UN.
The UPC largely consists of ethnic Peuhl, and the fighting led to violence against Peuhl civilians by both FPRC fighters and men in civilian clothes. On November 21, two FPRC fighters killed a local businessman, Nouhou Badem, at his home in Mandé II neighborhood, where hundreds of Peuhl were seeking refuge.
Fighting flared around the town’s hospital. By 8 a.m. on November 21, FPRC fighters who had brought injured fighters to the hospital had based themselves within the compound, firing on UPC fighters who had assumed positions outside the hospital. Around this time, FPRC fighters and men in civilian clothes pulled two injured Peuhl out of the hospital, one of them perhaps a fighter, and killed them outside the main entrance.
The fighting displaced up to 10,000 people from Bria, a town of approximately 43,000. At least 7,000 are in a makeshift camp around the UN peacekeeping base in town, with 2,000 to 3,000 others in homes and schools near the airstrip. At the makeshift camp, Human Rights Watch observed squalid conditions that require an urgent humanitarian response. The camp started to receive limited assistance on December 1.
The violence also spread to Bria’s periphery. Peuhl fighters aligned with the UPC have targeted non-Peuhl civilians and, in revenge, armed non-Peuhl have attacked Peuhl civilians. On November 26, men with guns, machetes and knives attacked nine Peuhl, including three women and four children, outside of Golaga, 10 kilometers outside of Bria, killing five of them. Three of the others are missing and presumed dead.
The faction leaders told Human Rights Watch that their fighters do not target civilians. However, both sides have used inflammatory language that could be perceived as support for violence against civilians.
The head of the FPRC military wing in Bria, General Azor Khalid, said he wanted the Peuhl out of Bria and his fighters planned to push the UPC out of its base in Bambari, 170 kilometers west, with help from the local population, including anti-balaka militia. The head of political affairs for the UPC in Bria, Moussa Ahmat Alou, said his men would do whatever they could to “prevent a genocide.” Between November 28 and 30, Human Rights Watch saw hundreds of heavily armed fighters from both factions, many in civilian clothes, moving freely around areas of the town under their respective control.
“Tension is high and civilians are paying the price,” Mudge said. “The deliberate targeting of civilians is a war crime. FPRC and UPC commanders should know they could be held responsible for the action of their men.”