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Last Updated: Monday, 30 July 2007, 09:22 GMT 10:22 UK
Caught in CAR's deadly crossfire
By Karen Allen
BBC News, Central African Republic

In the village of Nanabariain the Central African Republic, not a single house has been spared. Seven hundred people lived here until October last year.

APRD soldiers
The APRD has no clear agenda
That was before their mud and brick homes were burnt to the ground, when members of the elite Presidential Guard arrived one morning with guns and mortars.

The soldiers were on a mission to hunt down rebels from the APRD, the insurgents in the north-west who have laid siege to the main town of Paoua at least twice in the past 18 months.

The military claimed civilians in Nanabaria were giving the rebels refuge. Many villagers deny this.

"My house was the first to be burnt down," explained Janvier Zolo, a minister at the village church, which is now little more than a charred shell.

'Not rebels'

He says only a quarter of the population in this part of the country voted for President Francois Bozize in the 2005 elections, but insists: "It doesn't mean we are rebels - we respect the choice of President Bozize."

Since the attack, human rights organisations have slated the military for using excessive force and perpetuating human rights violations in a country where acts of violence have gone largely unreported.

We're caught in the middle of three groups fighting each other
Sammuel Ngakoutou
An estimated 212,000 people have been displaced by fighting in a country that has seen four coups in the past decade.

A further 70,000 have crossed the border to seek refuge in neighbouring Chad and Cameroon.

The same size as France but with a population of just four million, CAR is in many ways still a French colony. It also increasingly finds itself entangled in the troubles in neighbouring Chad and Sudan.

The French supported President Bozize when he seized power in 2003 and then again when he was elected leader two years later.

"Nothing happens here without the approval of Paris," claimed one individual who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

The recent intervention of French troops to quell insurgent attacks on Birao, near the Sudanese border, appears to bear this out.

'French mother'

Some Central Africans nevertheless approve of the "hands on" approach adopted by the former colonial masters.

"France is our mother and we are her child," declares Captain Laurent Djim Woei Bebiti, the spokesman for the rebel APRD.

Young APRD soldiers
The government says it is offering amnesty to rebels
His men, who he claims number some 5,000, are broadly made up of those who helped bring Mr Bozize to power but now feel abandoned, alongside others who were once loyal to former President Ange-Felix Patasse.

Mr Bebiti sits outside his den, deep in the forest, with a bodyguard in close attendance: a young man weighed down by rifles and grenades hanging from his belt, and adorned with fetishes.

"A mother never abandons her child," he says, reflecting a sentiment common among the APRD leadership - that the French should help sort out a mess created by a national army that they view as being out of control.

To the outsider this is an apparent contradiction: The Presidential Guard, blamed for torching villages in their hunt for the rebels, are themselves trained by the French.


The rebels also accuse the government of turning a blind eye to the "coupeurs de routes" - the armed bandits who infest the roads of the north, targeting civilians and humanitarian workers alike, and making trade virtually impossible.


The APRD has no coherent political agenda, but its forces have waged a low-level war against the government, bringing large swathes of the country to its knees.

Among the recruits are young men like Ivan, who was just a child when he saw his parents killed in the coup that brought Mr Bozize to power.

As his fellow rebels pose "Rambo style" for photographs, he explains that his father was a guard in former President Patasse's army.

He was killed along with his mother, father and brother.

Lifting his tattered shirt, Ivan reveals the scar where he says he was bayoneted by a Bozize loyalist. For him, being a rebel is "revenge".

The consequences of this forgotten conflict are being felt hardest by the civilian population. Hundreds of thousands of people from Nanabaria and other villages like it, are now in hiding deep in the forests.

Many have been there for two years, and until recently have been out of reach of humanitarian teams.


A necklace of leaves "to give him strength" adorns the scrawny frame of Sammuel Ngakoutou, now living in the depths of the thick forest some 4km from the nearest road.

He is too scared to return to his village, and now lives here in abject poverty with his wife and 10 children.

Young APRD soldiers
The government says it is offering amnesty to rebels
"We're caught in the middle of three groups fighting each other: the bandits, the rebels and the government forces," he says.

The UN security council has put pressure on President Bozize to enter into dialogue with the rebel groups.

In the north-east a truce has been signed with two rebel leaders, but efforts in the north-west are still at an early stage.

An amnesty has been offered to fighters if they lay down their arms. Several hundred have "defected" in recent months.

The representative of the Presidential Guard in Paoua, the nearest main town, told the BBC that his troops were now "highly disciplined" and the burning of villages had stopped.

Yet as the lieutenant, who spoke to us anonymously, was declaring this "change of tack", soldiers on motorbikes stopped a team of foreign aid workers in Paoua, and taunted them with Kalashnikovs.

Incidents like these terrify the humanitarian community here, whether they are initiated by rebels, government soldiers or bandits.

In the past two months, a French aid worker from Medecines Sans Frontieres was killed in this part of the country, and staff from the Catholic charity Caritas were shot a fortnight ago.

The international focus in CAR has been on the arrival of refugees fleeing from the fighting in neighbouring Darfur.

The foreign military presence is likely to be stepped up with plans to deploy EU peacekeepers along the borders of Chad, Sudan and CAR.

A greater military presence may improve both internal and regional security in the short term, but until there is a major economic push for the underdeveloped north, the unrest is likely to persist.

CAR fears spillover from Darfur
20 Jul 07 |  Africa
Profile of Francois Bozize
16 Mar 03 |  Africa
Country profile: Central African Republic
04 Jun 07 |  Country profiles

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