The United Nations and government forces in the Central African Republic (CAR) have declared a flashpoint district in the capital, Bangui, where recent clashes claimed dozens of lives, a “weapons-free” zone.
More than 30 people were killed last week, according to the Red Cross and a local imam, Awad al-Karim, as fighting erupted in the mainly-Muslim PK5 neighbourhood between local fighters and traders angered by extortion. But now the UN has stepped in, calling on both sides to disarm.
“Anyone seen with arms will be arrested, disarmed or neutralised if he or she resists,” Brigadier General Frank Chatelus, head of the UN forces in CAR, known as MINUSCA, announced on Tuesday.
“The population shouldn’t take law into their hands. It’s the responsibility of MINUSCA and local forces. We will also occupy and control bases of self-defence groups.”
The CAR government will deploy patrols by the Domestic Security Forces (FSI) – police and gendarmes – and a police commissioner will be sent to PK5, a MINUSCA spokesman told the AFP news agency.
“The ball is in the camp” of the armed groups, he said. “We are waiting for their members to come along with their weapons and lay them down.”
Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, reporting from Bangui, said: “The declaration of the PK5 neighbourhood as a weapons-free zone came just hours before a deadline to surrender all arms expired.”
“Traders had told the gunmen they formerly relied on for protection to give up their weapons or face an all-out war,” he said.
“And a shoot on sight policy has now been issued for anyone caught carrying a gun.”
The CAR has been gripped by sporadic violence since 2014, after then-President Francois Bozize was removed in a coup.
Fierce fighting then erupted between predominantly Christian and Muslim fighters, prompting the intervention of former colonial power France, under a UN mandate.
Most of the country lies in the hands of armed groups, who often fight over the country’s mineral resources.
The PK5 district, where many Muslim traders took refuge in 2013, is a trigger point.
In April 2018, MINUSCA launched a crackdown on fighters there in response to appeals by local traders, but the operation ended bloodily with about 30 deaths, sparking anger among local people.
As a fragile calm returned to the streets of PK5 and the markets reopened, despite the destruction, residents told Al Jazeera they were “fed up of the vigilantes”.
“Our message is clear, people should really be careful. We are going to make sure no one is using guns to hold people to ransom,” Souvenance Yakitte, a PK5 resident, told Al Jazeera.
Youssouf Djibrine, head of the traders’ association in PK5, was cautious, recalling the failure of the April 2018 operation, codenamed Sukula, meaning cleanup in the national language Sango.
“MINUSCA has to honour what it says” about disarming, he said. “I can still see danger.”
The local imam, al-Karim, was more optimistic, saying that Tuesday’s announcement was “a major step forward”.
Several fighters, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said they were keen on giving up their weapons and integrating into civilian life.
A “disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration” (DDR) programme is being funded to the tune of $30m by the World Bank, aiming to encourage 9,000 fighters to return to civilian life.