Sunday, March 31, 2013

CAR News Update: Religious Tensions Rise; Interim Government Formed; Child Soldiers Killed

Religious tensions rise in Central Africa after coup


Rising religious tensions in the Central African Republic could be a ticking time-bomb after a coup that left the chronically unstable nation with a Muslim strongman, despite his promises of secular rule.

"We are sitting on a bomb. An evil sorcerer could blow up the whole house. I don't want us to underestimate the problem," said Dieudonne Nzapalainga, the Catholic archbishop of Bangui.

Michel Djotodia, the self-proclaimed president, became the first Muslim leader of the country after seizing power in a bloody March 24 coup that ousted president Francois Bozize, creating days of chaos and looting.

"The Central African Republic is a secular state," Djotodia said on Friday. "It is true that I am Muslim, but I must serve my country, all Central Africans."

However he said that "some people with bad intentions want to lead the country into inter-religious conflict."

Since Djotodia and his Seleka rebel coalition began an offensive in December, Bozize's regime often accused them of "preaching Wahhabism" -- an ultra-conservative Islam often followed by fundamentalists -- or of being "Muslim terrorists."

During the crisis Bozize's supporters set up so-called self-defence committees which erected roadblocks around the capital Bangui and often lashed out at Muslims whom they associated with the rebels.

At the same time the rebels leaned on the Muslim community which carried out fundraising for them. Looters also ransacked Christian property after the coup, sparing Muslims and heightening tensions.

One resident of Bangui said that images of Muslims chanting "Allah Akbar" (God is great) when Djotodia arrived at the Bangui mosque for Friday prayers had "shocked" some Christians.

"We are no longer at home. They pillage our goods which are then sold by the Muslims who export them to the north (Chad and Sudan)," he said on condition of anonymity.

A woman from the Benz-Vi suburb added, referring to the Muslims: "They say, 'It's our turn now. We will make you pay'."

The country of nearly five million people is mostly Christian, with about 15 percent Muslims who are concentrated in the north where the rebellion started.

The different religions have always coexisted peacefully and leaders from both sides have urged people not to confuse the fact that there is a Muslim leader, with the "Islamisation" of the country.

"The new authorities are not there for a religious goal but a political goal. They must present their political agenda to convince the population," said Pastor Nicolas Guere Koyame, leader of the Alliance of Evangelists in Central Africa.

Imam Oumar Kobline Layama, president of the Islamic Community of Central Africa, said the rebels should not play into the hands of those "who want to turn this change into a religious problem."

"We must not destroy this cohabitation that we have had for more than 50 years," he said.

"I ask Muslims not to say: 'today it's our turn'. There is no 'turn', we are all Central Africans. The leaders of Seleka must keep to the principles of Islam. Islam does not encourage division or theft or looting," he said.

The archbishop Nzapalainga also called for people not to mix up religion and politics.

"The reason for the crisis is not religious but political. But along the way, words and actions toward the Christian community have given the impression this is a religious crisis," he said.

However ,sources in the political, military and diplomatic community say the Islam practiced by Seleka is of less concern than the absence of the state and the security vacuum which, combined with high poverty rates, could make it easier for radical groups to take hold.

Central African Republic leader takes defense ministry in caretaker government

3:51pm EDT
By Ange Aboa

BANGUI (Reuters) - Central African Republic's new leader Michel Djotodia announced a caretaker government on Sunday in which he is defense minister, according to a statement issued by his spokesman.

The new government, which is due to hold elections in the mineral-rich former French colony within three years, will retain civilian opposition representative Nicolas Tiangaye as prime minister.

Djotodia toppled President Francois Bozize on March 24 after leading thousands of his Seleka rebel fighters into the riverside capital Bangui, triggering days of looting and drawing international condemnation.

The African Union suspended Central African Republic and imposed sanctions on Seleka leaders, including Djotodia, last week.

France and the United States say the rebels should adhere to a power-sharing deal signed in Gabon's capital Libreville in January that mapped out a transition to elections in 2016 in which Bozize was forbidden from running.

Djotodia has pledged to act in the spirit of the agreement and said on Friday he would step down in 2016. But Washington on Saturday said Tiangaye, named premier under the Libreville agreement, was now the only legal head of government.

Bozize seized power in a 2003 coup, but his failure to keep promises of power-sharing after winning disputed 2011 polls led to the offensive by five rebel groups known as Seleka, which means "alliance" in the Sango language.

Child soldiers killed in Central African Republic, South African troops claim

AFP | Mar 31, 2013, 09.33 PM IST

JOHANNESBURG: South African soldiers who survived last week's rebel takeover of the Central African Republic are traumatized after claiming they later discovered some of the rebels killed were child soldiers, local media reported on Sunday.

In what has turned out to be South Africa's heaviest military loss since apartheid, 13 soldiers were killed last weekend in Bangui in clashes with Seleka rebels who toppled president Francois Bozize.

Around 200 South African troops fought against some 3,000 rebels during the battle for the Central African capital that lasted several hours.

Some troops who have returned to South Africa recounted to local newspapers that they only discovered after the battle that they had been fighting against some child rebel soldiers.

"It was only after the firing had stopped that we saw we had killed kids. We did not come here for this ... to kill kids. It makes you sick. They were crying calling for help ... calling for (their) moms," a paratrooper told Sunday Times.

South African President Jacob Zuma in January had approved the deployment of 400 soldiers to the Central African Republic to help local forces, as part of a bilateral pact with the administration of now deposed Bozize. In the end about 200 soldiers were sent.

Some of the Central African rebels were "teenagers who should be in school," the soldier, who like others requested anonymity, told the paper.

In City Press newspaper a soldier was quoted as saying many of the rebels were "only children".

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) told AFP it was not ready to comment on allegations that child rebel soldiers had engaged its troop in Bangui, as it had not received any such reports.

"What we were informed is the SANDF were attacked by advancing groups of rebels ... and they opened fire on our soldiers and our soldiers returned fire in self-defence," defence spokesman Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga said.

"Now to say the composition (of the rebel forces) was made of this and that, I wouldn't really like to engage," he added.

The two newspapers also quoted the soldiers saying the South African troops were running out of ammunition before the rebels approached them to surrender.

However, Mabanga shot back at the allegation saying it did not make sense to say South Africans were running low on ammunition when the rebels waved a white flag.

"If I'm fighting you and you realise that I am running out of ammunition, which means that I cannot fight you anymore, why do you have to surrender?" he said.

South Africa's government now faces increasing calls at home for a probe into why troops were sent to the Central African Republic.

Zuma is due to attend an extraordinary summit of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) on Wednesday to be hosted by the Chadian leader Idriss Deby Itno.

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