French fighter jets have flown over the Central African Republic (CAR) for the first time since last month’s disputed presidential election amid rising concern as violence and insecurity has forced tens of thousands of people to flee into neighbouring countries.
The office of French President Emmanuel Macron said on Saturday the flight took place at the request of CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera and with permission of the United Nations peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) in the country.
Macron had condemned recent acts of violence during a phone call with Touadera, his office said, an apparent reference to a rebel advance which Touadera and the UN say has been mounted by former President Francois Bozize to thwart the election.
Touadera was declared the winner of the December 27 election with more than 50 percent of votes cast in a single round, avoiding a runoff against any of 16 challengers.
Many of the opposition candidates have demanded the election be annulled and for the vote to be repeated, citing irregularities and low turnout following violent clashes.
The electoral commission declared Touadera the winner with a voter turnout of more than 76 percent. However, only half the country’s 1.8 million eligible voters were able to register to vote due to the rebel offensive.
On Saturday, MINUSCA spokesman Abdoulaziz Fall said government forces were attacked by “armed elements” in the western city of Bouar, which lies around 340km (210 miles) from the capital Bangui. UN peacekeepers who came to the aid of the government troops had themselves come under fire, he told AFP news agency.
The city is the base for the Leclerc camp, the army’s headquarters in the western region.
In November, six of the most powerful armed rebel groups, who between them control two-thirds of the country, announced an alliance against Touadera’s government. They launched a series of attacks in a bid to disrupt the presidential and legislative elections.
French fighter jets also flew over CAR four days before the polls.
France has a history of repeated military interventions in the CAR, most recently from 2013-16. The UN now maintains nearly 13,000 peacekeepers there.
Macron reiterated condemnation of former President Bozize on Saturday.
Thousands flee due to unrest
The disputed election could further destabilise a country whose population of 4.7 million has endured waves of armed group violence in recent years that has killed thousands of people and forced more than a million from their homes.
Bozize was removed in 2013 by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels, prompting reprisals from mostly Christian militias and plunging the CAR into a civil war.
Touadera, who was prime minister under Bozize, was first elected in 2016. He has worked to restore state institutions and signed an agreement with armed groups in 2019, but has failed to bring lasting peace. Vast swathes of the country remain under militia control.
The UN said on Friday that more than 30,000 people had already been forced to flee the CAR due to violence surrounding last month’s vote, and tens of thousands of others were internally displaced.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) said those who have left the CAR for neighbouring countries needed urgent assistance with water, shelter, healthcare and sanitation.
Goniwar Maxime, who fled with his family to Cameroon after armed groups took over control of Bouar, said armed group members had robbed him of his belongings.
“I was on my motorcycle when they chained my legs, look they stabbed me in the stomach and in the back, then they stole all that I had,” Maxime said.
As a result of the violence, more than 24,000 crossed into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while nearly 4,500 arrived in Cameroon, a further 2,200 in Chad and about 70 in the Republic of Congo, according to the UNHCR.
“Inside CAR, 185,000 people from at least 25 localities have fled, mostly as a preventative measure, into the bush and forests since December 15,” spokesman Boris Cheshirkov told reporters in Geneva.
While thousands have since returned home, some 62,000 people remain newly internally displaced, he said.
UN staff said they were overwhelmed by the number of refugees.
“A staggering amount of people [are] in need of assistance and help and any improvement in the security would mean people could return home but they can’t do that at the moment,” said Romain Desclous, UNHCR spokesman.