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Page last updated at 07:33 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008
A country awash with guns

By Mike Thomson
Today programme

Peace talks are under way in the Central African Republic.

Taley fighters
A member of Taley's self-defence group brandishes his homemade rifle
The talks coincide with a UN meeting over plans to increase the number of peacekeepers in the region.

Both gatherings follow several years of civil war, coup d'etats and ruthless attacks on civilians by roaming gangs of armed bandits. A ceasefire should be in operation but is often disregarded.

The government controls little more than half the country. Surrounded by troubled nations like Sudan, Congo and Chad, there are fears that the Central African Republic could become a new Somalia.

Three main rebel forces sitting across the negotiating table from President Francois Bozize.

Some of the rebels want to regain the power they lost following the successful coup in 2003, which initially brought Bozize to power.

Rebel leaderAwash with gunsWarlordAbandoned villageWidow villageHumanitarian disaster Read Mike Thomson's reports from Central African Republic

Others are fighting in protest at what they see as his regime's almost total neglect of the rural population.

Around Birao, in the north-east of the country, a European Union force patrols, attempting to keep the peace. In that part of the country - and north over the border in Chad - are 3,000 European Union troops, the largest EU peacekeeping force anywhere in the world.

EU on patrol
European Union troops could soon be boosted by more UN troops
"We never know what we will face and we might find ourselves facing a rebel vehicle at a very short distance so we are always ready to open fire if necessary," says Captain Noe-Noel Uchida, leader of one patrol.

"I have mortars, I have anti-tank missiles and all the weaponry necessary to accomplish the mission if the situation worsens."

Unrest has been common since the country's independence in 1960. The former colonial power, France, has a significant stake in the country's uranium industry, and is training troops to deal with the threat. The FACA, as they are known, appear to need such help.

The government only has around 5,000, often poorly equipped soldiers to patrol a huge and lawless area. Under a regional agreement, troops from neighbouring countries including Chad, Sudan and Cameroon fill the gaps to help.

However, there are reports that some Chadian troops, there to help government troops suppress rebel forces, have plundered and rampaged through the very areas they are supposed to be protecting.

There are problems too in the south of the country, where members of the Lord's Resistance Army - or LRA - have been crossing over from Congo and killing, kidnapping and raping Central African adults and children.

Self-defence force
We were being regularly attacked by road bandits, who had a base not far from here. They were attacking villagers and then taking people hostage and threatening to kill them unless they were paid money
Rebel forces and gangs are in charge of the countryside as peacekeeping forces rarely stray outside the relative safety of towns.

And government troops themselves do not escape charges of human rights abuses. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently condemned what he called the "culture of impunity" which has allowed both the FACA and rebel groups to commit horrific human rights abuses against civilians.

Defending communities

But the country's minister for families and social affairs, Marie Solange Pagonendji, insists that government soldiers are defending themselves against rebel attacks.

"To say that people are afraid of the Central African armed forces is ridiculous, given it is their own children who are taking hostages and leading the rebellion.

"You can't expect government troops to do nothing when people attack them. They have the right to defend themselves."

Small self-defence groups spring up, in an attempt to defend communities. In the small town of Talay, they have started a self defence force like many other villages in the region.

"We were being regularly attacked by road bandits, who had a base not far from here.

"They were attacking villagers and then taking people hostage and threatening to kill them unless they were paid money. Sometimes they were demanding large sums of money people here just couldn't pay," says one of the self-defence force.

"So we have armed ourselves and chased them away from here."

But many, like Lt Colonel Mathieu Mobilignawa, the military governor in Birao, are concerned that such small forces see yet more guns, in a country awash with gunmen.

"If there is no development there will be no money and no work, so people will need to take up guns just to survive," he says.

"It will be a war between the strongest and the weakest. The strongest will find food and the weak will not....the strong will kill the weak, it will be like the jungle."


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