Deadly clashes erupt in C.Africa as French minister visits

AFP , Monday 7 Jul 2014

Le Drian
File Photo: France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attends a news conference in Paris October 3, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

France's defence minister warned Monday that violence in the Central African Republic was becoming "more serious" as he started a visit to the former French colony, amid reports of more deadly clashes.

Jean-Yves Le Drian said political efforts to end the bloody conflict have stalled despite the election of a new leader six months ago, and the deadlock has further inflamed tensions between Christians and Muslims.

"The settlement to all this can only be political, yet politics have broken down," he told AFP before arriving in the capital Bangui on Monday.

Central Africa's transitional president Catherine Samba Panza took power in February in a bid to end the deadly sectarian violence, which erupted when the mainly Muslim Seleka alliance seized power in a March 2013 coup.

Brutal attacks by rogue former Seleka splinter groups prompted the mostly Christian majority to form "anti-balaka" ("anti-machete") vigilante militias, unleashing a wave of tit-for-tat killings.

Several people died in sectarian clashes between the rival groups in the central town of Dekoa on Sunday, a policeman told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In the north, at least three people were killed by gunmen who rode into the village of Kouki on motorbikes and shot at residents, said a source in peacekeeping forces.

Some 34 Muslims were also injured, four of them critically, by a grenade attack on a mosque during Ramadan prayers in a village near the Chad border, the MISCA source added.

Thousands have died and around a quarter of Central Africa's 4.5 million population have been displaced in the conflict. Much of the country's Muslim population have fled their homes, with others sheltering in camps.

Le Drian said Samba Panza has not been able to "renew the political process, which has stalled" and warned clashes between local fighters and international peacekeepers were escalating.

French troops are operating under a UN mandate alongside some 5,800 soldiers of an international African contingent, MISCA, deployed by the African Union with a mandate to provide security, restore stability and protect the population.

Anti-balaka forces have hidden among crowds to attack troops of the 2,000-strong French force known as Operation Sangaris.

Le Drian said that while there were fewer direct conflicts between the warring groups and peacekeeping forces, "these clashes are becoming more serious".

Local groups are becoming more radical "because people cannot see a future for the whole of the country," he said.

He has said he plans to talk with Samba Panza about restoring "a security chain" of police, the judiciary and prisons, arguing that "we're dealing more with criminal groups than with soldiers".

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