C.Africa clerics call for weapons-free churches, mosques

AFP , Friday 21 Feb 2014

A family displaced by inter-communal violence in the country sit near a plane in a camp for displaced persons at Bangui M'Poko International Airport February 20, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

The Central African Republic's top Catholic and Muslim leaders said Friday that militiamen from both sides using churches and mosques as shelters should disarm or be disarmed.

The fresh cross-faith appeal to stop the looting and sectarian violence that has displaced close to a quarter of the total population in a year came after the UN called for more contributions to an overstretched peacekeeping force.

Dieudonne Nzapalainga and Oumar Kobine Layama, respectively the archbishop and imam of Bangui, held a joint press conference urging rival groups to lay down their arms.

"Let all our brothers who are carrying weapons hand them over. The soldiers should disarm everyone, in churches and in mosques," Nzapalainga said.

"Armed people have been infiltrating places of worship, including mosques," Layama said, urging the population to support international disarmament efforts.

They supported UN chief Ban Ki-moon's call on Thursday for 3,000 extra troops to be dispatched to the country.

The clerics said reinforcements were needed to assist vulnerable civilians in parts of the vast country where the weak interim government has no clout and foreign troops have not yet ventured.

The pair of religious leaders has relentlessly criss-crossed the Central African Republic to preach restraint since the aftermath of a March 2013 coup spiralled into Christian-Muslim clashes.

Their appeals have gone largely unheeded in recent months as rights groups warned that ethnic cleansing against the Muslim minority was ongoing.

The 2,000 French troops and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers on the ground have also failed to stem violence -- including gruesome public lynchings -- that has left hundreds dead this year alone.

The violence flared in late 2012 when the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel group launched an offensive against Francois Bozize, who had been in power for a decade.

The rebels toppled him in March last year but some of them went rogue and embarked on a campaign of looting, raping and killing that caused international alarm.

Christian-dominated vigilantes known as "anti-balaka" formed in response.

Their revenge attacks against Muslims have continued unabated despite the French intervention in December and the former Seleka chief giving up the presidency the following month.

The violence is forcing thousands to flee the country, with the UN's refugee agency reporting that 28,000 had crossed in Cameroon alone since the start of February.

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