At least 14 killed at religious site in CAR: Amnesty

Rights group calls for investigation amid clashes between Central African Republic security forces and armed groups.

Central African Army soldiers inspect a looted military base in Bangassou that had been occupied by militiamen [File: Alexis Huguet/AFP]

At least 14 people have been killed at a religious site in the Central African Republic (CAR) amid clashes between armed groups and security forces, according to material gathered by rights group Amnesty International.

Following the analysis of satellite images, testimonies and photographs, Amnesty International published a report on Thursday detailing an attack that took place on February 16 in Bambari, CAR’s fifth biggest town, located in the centre of the country, 380 kilometres (236 miles) from the capital Bangui.

Since January President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s government has gone on the offensive following a resurgence in violence ahead of presidential and legislative elections held on December 27. Six armed groups joined forces under the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) to stop the elections from taking place while occupying several towns.

Crisis Evidence Lab, set up to help fact-finding human rights organisations, received one video showing at least 14 bodies laying on the floor of a religious site in the east of the city following an attack that took place a day before the government said it had “completely liberated” the town from armed groups.

While the video did not provide enough information to assess the identity of the victims, parts of it showed they were not wearing military clothes and that a woman and a child were among the dead.

The footage showed the building had been damaged by explosives and bullets, with the wounds on at least three of the bodies also consistent with such an attack, Amnesty said.

A woman who fled violence in CAR sits with her family in the border town of Garoua Boulai, Cameroon [File: Joel Kouam/Reuters]

The human rights group also reported that during the February 16 clashes a medical centre supported by Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) had been targeted with bullets and explosives. The centre had treated 30 people, including eight women and nine minors.

Amnesty also said “many people” have been displaced in the southeastern city of Bangassou while humanitarian aid into the country was blocked.

The human rights group is calling for an independent investigation into the documented violence.

“In a country where conflict has been raging for two decades, the authorities must now clearly prioritise the protection of human rights and the fight against impunity for those who violate them,” said Abdoulaye Diarra, Amnesty International Central Africa researcher.

“An important first step is to open independent investigations into the violations and abuses documented,” he added.

Locked in violence

The escalation of violence has led to a deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the mineral-rich country. At least 2.8 million people, more than half of the country’s population, need aid and protection, according to the United Nations.

On Tuesday, UNICEF said the surge in fighting has put education on hold for 50 percent of the children across the country.

Moroccan UN peacekeepers stand guard outside the office of the Mouvement Coeurs Unis (MCU), the party of the newly re-elected President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, in Bangassou [File: Alexis Huguet/AFP]

One of the world’s poorest countries, the CAR has been locked in violence since 2013 when the Seleka, an armed group drawn largely from the Muslim minority, overthrew then-President Francois Bozize. “Anti-balaka” Christian militias struck back, and the country since descended into a spiral of violence that caused thousands of deaths and prompted about a quarter of the population to flee their homes.

The resulting war divided the country of almost five million people largely along religious and ethnic lines, with the ensuing chaos creating a hotchpotch of armed groups that still control large swathes of territory.

Bozize fled abroad after being toppled in 2013. He returned in late 2019 but was barred from running in the December 27 vote. President Touadéra has claimed the six armed groups acted in concert with the former president.

Touadéra won re-election in the first round of the polls, according to official figures, but the turnout was just 35 percent as many voters were unable to cast their ballot.

Bozize denies giving any support to the six groups, but the government on January 4 launched an inquiry into him for “rebellion”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies