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Tens of thousands of people are seeking sanctuary in churches and mission compounds as fighting intensifies in the Central African Republic between forces loyal to ex-President François Bozizé and the Seleka rebels who overthrew him.
“The whole country is terrorised,” Fr Anicet Assingambi of St Charles de Lwanga parish in the north of the capital, Bangui, told the Catholic aid agency Caritas.
The Archbishop of Bangui, who has repeatedly called for international intervention, said the capital was “chaotic”. “Many people have been killed. The fighting must stop immediately.”
“Women and children are coming to churches to seek safety across the capital. They have nothing to eat and drink, so we are giving them what we can.”
There are about 10,000 people sheltering in the city’s St Bernard Church and the monastery in the neighbourhood of Boy-Rabe.
“There are five thousand people hiding in our parish buildings. A woman told me she’d seen her brother gunned down. All men are shot at if they go outside. There is a young man dead on the street outside, but it’s too dangerous to go outside to remove his body,” said Fr Assingambi.
“We have nothing to give them,” said Fr Assingambi. “Their homes have been looted. They’re mourning their dead. When they arrived in the church, the children were crying. We sang hymns and said prayers and that has helped calm people down. We have never seen anything as bad as this before. We’re at the mercy of God, please pray for us.”
French troops were sent to CAR after the UN Security Council on Friday backed a mandate to restore order. Some 400 people have been killed in clashes in the last few days.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves le Drian announced today that the 1,600 French troops have begun disarming the rebels in Bangui. But the violence and terror has stretched right across the country.
In the north town of Bossangoa, where more than 40,000 people are camped out in the Catholic Mission compound and another 1,600 people are hiding in a school, Caritas reported that a rocket landed in the mission on Friday but “miraculously” no one was killed.
The vicar-general of Bossangoa, Fr Alain Eouanzoui, said all the houses nearby had been burned down. Caritas staff in the north-east reported a similar picture of homes being torched. Staff also said people had been killed in three villages near the western city of Bozoum.
Fr Aurélio Gazzera, the local diocesan Caritas director in Bouar, said that around 300 people had stayed the night in the church. “Everyone is afraid. Going outside, you see many men have armed themselves with machetes and knives to defend themselves.”
A pastor working in CAR reported that many shops owned by Christians had been pillaged and looted.
Since March more than 300,000 people have fled their homes because of the fighting.
To make matters worse, the fighting has prevented farmers from planting crops. Caritas has warned that major food shortages could be on the horizon because eight out of ten people in CAR use the land as their main resource for food, it has caused more than a million people to not have enough to eat.
Above: the compound at Bossangoa. Photo: CNS