Dozens, including a Catholic priest, were killed last week as fighting erupted between armed groups in several villages in southern Central African Republic.
Father Joseph Désiré Angbabata, 49, the parish priest of Séko village, near Bambari, lost his life when armed men stormed his village parish of Saint Charles LWANGA on Wednesday, 21 March. He had been planning to move in the coming days due to growing tension in the area.
The assailants are believed to be militants of the UPC (l’Unité pour la Paix en Centrafrique), a predominantly Muslim and Fulani group comprised of fighters who formerly fought for the Séléka rebel group. The UPC has been responsible for numerous massacres and human rights abuses, including the killing of ten Red Cross workers last year in Gambo.
The attack on Séko followed clashes between UPC militants and local vigilantes – known as Anti-balaka (which translates as “Anti-machete”) – a day before in nearby Tagbara, triggered by the murder of an Anti-balaka militiaman by the UPC.
In response, Anti-balaka forces attacked a UPC position in Tagbara, killing a dozen militants and leading to further reprisal attacks by the UPC, whose men attacked a string of villages on the 100km stretch of road between Bambari and Ippy, killing indiscriminately and setting fire to houses.
Tension is still high, as UPC militants are still occupying the area, despite the presence of UN peacekeepers. The violence has forced many to seek refuge in Bambari. So far it has not been possible to establish the death toll.
‘He died a martyr’
In Séko, many had sought refuge in the Catholic parish, but UPC fighters chased them out, shooting the priest at close range and killing at least 16 other villagers, including women and children. The assailants also looted and ransacked the parish.
Mgr. Richard Appora, Archbishop of Bambari, told World Watch Monitor: “We lost a young priest. Fr. Joseph Désiré Angbabata died as a martyr in his field of mission, the Church.”
Fr. Angbabata was buried in the parish compound, while the other victims were buried in a mass grave.
Mgr. Appora also recalled some concerns expressed recently by Fr. Angbabata over rising tension in the area. He said the priest had been thinking of relocating to Bambari just a few days later, following Palm Sunday.
According to Mgr. Appora, Fr. Angbabata had alerted the Mauritanian contingent of MINUSCA over the rising tensions, and asked for protection. But in response, he was told to move to the MINUSCA camp instead. But he refused to leave while others were sheltering in his parish.
“[MINUSCA] did nothing to protect the parish. Moreover, their presence didn’t prevent the UPC militants from attacking and killing civilians,” said Mgr. Appora.
More criticism for MINUSCA
The inability of UN peacekeepers to curb the violence in CAR has been denounced by many, including local MPs, religious leaders and human rights organisations. On 8 March, hundreds of women demonstrated in Bangassou, demanding the departure of the Moroccan contingent by stripping half-naked.
During a visit last October, UN Secretary-General António Guterres was questioned by MPs about the mandate of the UN troops in CAR.
“[MINUSCA] did nothing to protect the parish. Moreover, their presence didn’t prevent the UPC militants from attacking and killing civilians.”
Archbishop of Bambari
“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 the attack in Gambo that claimed dozens of lives, including the ten Red Cross workers.
The MP for Gambo, Michel Kpingo, in a statement said that all had desired the UN Moroccan contingent to be replaced and that “the complicity of these soldiers was clearly established in the events of Gambo”.
The UN denied any wrongdoing in a report published on 24 January.
Church leaders and aid workers targeted
The killing of Fr. Joseph Désiré Angbabata is the latest act of violence targeting church leaders in CAR.
On 25 February a church elder who worked for UNICEF was one of six people killed during an ambush by armed men in northern CAR. Gabriel Ole, 66, was an elder at a Baptist church (Eglise Baptiste Doumbia) in Bangui, the capital.
He was among of a group of six workers – including two officials from the Ministry of Education, and three members of a local group (Bangui Sans Frontieres) that works with UNICEF – travelling to the north-western town of Markounda, near the Chad border, when their car was ambushed.
The New Year was also marked by attacks targeting the diocese of Bangassou, including an assassination attempt.
Father Alain Blaise Bissialo, a priest at Christ-King Parish of Tokoyo, was stabbed by unknown armed men on 4 January. Fr. Bissialo, who is the president of the Bangassou Peace and Mediation Committee in the south-east of the country, has been involved in various initiatives for peace and reconciliation between Christian and Muslim communities. Some believe that his activism for peace and social cohesion in the region may have created enemies.