The UN has rejected allegations of complicity with armed groups in a string of massacres last year in the Central African Republic.
A UN Special Investigation team, led by Brigadier General (rtd) Fernand Amoussou and including legal, political and human-rights experts, looked into attacks between 1 May and 31 August 2017 in Haute-Kotto, Basse-Kotto, Mbomou, and Haut-Mbomou prefectures. MINUSCA has a presence in each of these areas, and the team also looked into the Mission’s response to these incidents, as well as any potential negligence.
In a statement, on 24 January, the investigation team stated: “No evidence was found that any of the Mission’s contingents in the southeast had acted in a partial manner towards certain armed groups or communities.”
Nonetheless, the inability of UN peacekeepers to curb the violence has been denounced by many, including local MPs, religious leaders and human right organisations.
During a visit last October, UN Secretary-General António Guterres was questioned by MPs about the mandate of the UN troops in CAR.
“How to explain that 12,000 men of the United Nations force are on the ground and that at the same time the civilian population continues to be massacred?” asked Karim Meckassoua, the President of the National Assembly. “What is the mandate of this force? Cannot we do better and more?”
The leader of the opposition, Anicet-Georges Dologuélé, added: “We have all noted that some officials of the Minusca maintained sympathies with warlords with regards to either culture or religion, either to obscure economic interests.”
Last August, a local MP accused UN peacekeepers of “complicity” in an attack which claimed dozens of lives, including ten Red Cross workers, in the eastern town of Gambo.
The MP for Gambo, Michel Kpingo, in a statement said that while all had wished for the UN Moroccan contingent to be replaced, it had not been, and that “the complicity of these soldiers was clearly established in the events of Gambo”.
Catholic Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga has also condemned the ongoing violence. He recalled that he and his two fellow leaders of CAR’s interfaith platform advocated for the deployment of UN peacekeepers, but he now says “regrettably, we noticed their failures and limitations on the ground. On various occasions, they have failed to protect those in need of assistance, and many have come to ask questions about their role or mandate in CAR”. Last March, following deadly clashes in the northern town of Kaga Bandoro (350km north of the capital), he spoke about the same issue.
Timeline of recent incidents
Paoua, December 2017
On 27 December 2017, fighting between two ex-Séléka rebel groups – the RJ (Revolution Justice) and the MPC (Le Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique) – erupted in the north-western town of Paoua and its surroundings. The violence claimed more than 100 lives, and forced some 60,000 people to flee.
In an open letter, dated 3 January and addressed to the representative of the UN General Secretary in the Central African Republic, Parfait Onanga Anyanga, a local NGO, Mekasna, pointed out a recent article by local news site La Voix des Sans Voix, titled ‘MINUSCA caught red-handed refuelling militants of General Bahar in weapons and ammunition’.
“This supply [by MINUSCA] gave the rebels a smile and strength to complete their despicable acts on the peaceful population,” wrote Mekasna.
“This scene took place in Gouze, 20km from Paoua, where the Séléka elements were refuelled and transported to Boguila, watched helplessly by the vigilante groups, and then deployed on the Boguila-Bemal-Betoko-Bemaide route.
“We do not understand this sudden turnaround of MINUSCA, whose main mission is to protect the civilian population by fighting the armed groups that will attack them. It has never been agreed in any resolution that MINUSCA should cooperate with Séléka, made up of foreign mercenaries, to bring about genocide in the sub-prefecture of Paoua.”
Bocaranga, September 2017
On Friday 22 September, armed men attacked the north-western town of Bocaranga, forcing the vast majority of its 15,000 inhabitants, including women and children, to flee.
Two armed groups: the 3R (Retour, Réclamation et Réhabilitation), a predominantly Fulani group led by Abass Sidiki, and MPC, led by Mohamed Bahar attacked and overran the town, without any reaction from the MINUSCA troops, believed to be a contingent from Bangladesh.
On Sunday 24 September, MINUSCA said its troops had intervened and repelled the attack, but in reality the town was still under rebel control. MINUSCA eventually launched an offensive, on 7-8 October, to remove the rebels from Bocaranga.
Zemio, September 2017
On 1 September, dozens of people were killed as armed men invaded the south-eastern town of Zemio, despite the presence of UN troops, believed to be from Morocco.
The assailants, believed to be mercenaries from Sudan, looted and ransacked a number of properties, including a health centre. They also looted the Catholic Church compound, prompting some 15,000 people who had sought refuge there to flee to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, including Fr. Jean Alain Zembi, the rector of Zemio, and his colleague, Fr. Désiré Blaise Kpangou.
Zemio had been plagued by violence since 28 June, when armed gangs overran it, cutting telephone lines and forcing half of its 50,000 inhabitants to flee. In a series of messages on Facebook, Fr. Zembi and Fr. Kpangou had warned over the presence of militiamen in the area.
Fr. Zembi accused UN peacekeepers stationed in Zemio of “deliberately abandoning” his town and leaving parishioners to be murdered by rebels. “You were warned, but you deliberately decided to abandon this town,” he wrote. He added: “This community is being sacrificed, and I will hold you responsible for all those dead and preparing to die.”
“If you don’t come soon to disarm these people, we will have to organise confessions and a final Mass and viaticum [giving Communion to and anointing someone before death] and prepare ourselves and the rest of the displaced people here for the worst,” Fr. Kpangou told UN forces on Facebook.
On 2 September, Father Louis Tongagnesi was hacked to death by armed men at his farm in Zambaguia village, near Zemio. According to local sources, the killing was carried out a Séléka off-shoot, the Union for Peace in Central Africa (UPC), a mainly Muslim and Fulani militia, and one of 13 armed groups that signed a peace agreement broached by the Roman Catholic Sant’Egidio peace group, in Rome, in June 2017.
The head of the UN Office for humanitarian affairs in CAR condemned the killing. “The murder of the Catholic priest in Zemio is a cowardly and abject crime. I strongly condemn it,” wrote Najat Rochdi on Twitter.
Gambo, August 2017
On 5-6 August, dozens of civilians were slaughtered in an attack by UPC militants in the south-eastern town of Gambo. Most of the victims were women and children, and many had their throats slit; others were burnt alive in their properties. Ten Red Cross workers were among those killed.
An undetermined number of houses and properties, including the Catholic compound, were also looted and burned down.
The Moroccan UN troops, who were in the town during the violence, did nothing to prevent the killings or protect civilians, several local sources told World Watch Monitor.
Bangassou, July 2017
In July, the Bishop of Bangassou, Juan José Aguirre Muños, demanded the withdrawal of the Moroccan contingent accused of indiscriminate killing of civilians in Bangassou.
His demand was seconded by the President of the Islamic Council in the CAR, one of the country’s top three religious leaders and a founding member of its Interfaith Platform.
“The people are witnesses and victims of the activity in [Bangassou] of the Moroccan contingent of UN peacekeepers,” said Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, part of a delegation sent from Bangui to investigate the situation in and around Bangassou.
“The people want the contingent to leave Bangassou because it has failed in its duty to protect civilians. These troops do little or nothing when the militiamen attack. Some say the Moroccan military are the cause of several cases of murder because they shoot civilians point-blank, calling them militia,” he added.
Alindao, May 2017
In a report published last September, Amnesty International denounced the failure of UN troops to protect civilians in the eastern prefecture of Basse-Kotto, including a massacre in the town of Alindao (on 8 May 2017) in which 130 people were killed, though credible sources estimated the toll reached several hundred.
The Alindao bloodbath was attributed to UPC militants.
The victims were Christian townspeople and villagers, perceived as supporting armed groups that oppose UPC’s rule, points out the report.
Annie, 36, recalled how the assailants captured her and her husband in Alindao on 10 May. “‘We’re going to do something to you Christians that won’t be forgotten for many generations,’” she said the men told them, before one fighter raped her and another fighter raped her husband. “After raping my husband, he shot him in the head,” Annie told Amnesty International.
“Although MINUSCA troops have saved many lives in the Central African Republic, their failures risk destroying public confidence in the peacekeeping mission and are putting thousands of people in danger,” said Amnesty’s Joanne Mariner. “Many Central Africans are now expressing increasing cynicism about MINUSCA’s willingness and ability to restore order, and about the mission’s capacity to conform to even a limited civilian protection mandate.”