Tuesday, May 27, 2014

French Fight Muslim Rebels in Central African Republic
CAR crowds protest French occupation of the country.
By Jerome Delay Associated Press
Saturday, May 24 2014 5:57 p.m. MDT

BAMBARI, Central African Republic — French forces in Central African Republic fired mortars and exchanged sustained gunfire Saturday with Muslim rebels who controlled the country until earlier this year.

The substantial engagement by the French in the central town of Bambari included targeting and destroying a rebel vehicle by firing on it from a Gazelle helicopter.

French forces fired warning shots and mortars as two rebel vehicles approached a bridge in the town, said a French military officer on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

The rebel forces maintain the French forces overreacted, saying they had only crossed the bridge to relieve a small unit they had at a checkpoint down the road.

Many local residents had earlier demonstrated against the French forces and blocked the bridge to prevent them from passing.

The alliance of rebel groups known as Seleka was forced from power in January nearly a year after its fighters overthrew the president. Christian militias have said they are seeking revenge for atrocities committed during Seleka's rule. The sectarian violence has left thousands dead and forced nearly 1 million people to flee their homes.

The exchange Saturday shows that former Seleka rebels, who have been in disarray since they were forced from power, have not been defeated and may be gaining strength. Hundreds of the Muslim fighters had gathered more than two weeks ago to choose Gen. Joseph Zindeko as their new leader. He was once a commander of a rebel base in the capital, Bangui. At that time, the rebels said they intended to create a political wing so they can participate in reconciliation talks.

Around 2,000 French troops and nearly 5,000 African peacekeepers are trying to stabilize Central African Republic, a country about the size of Texas. Last month, the U.N. Security Council authorized a nearly 12,000-strong peacekeeping force to bolster the troops already in the country to protect civilians, though the U.N. force is not expected to be operational until September.

French troops battle Muslim rebels in Central African Republic town

Sat, May 24 2014
By Goran Tomasevic

BAMBARI, Central African Republic (Reuters) - French peacekeeping troops in Central African Republic used helicopter gunships and mortars on Saturday to fight Muslim rebels at a bridge in the town of Bambari, northeast of the capital Bangui, a Reuters witness said.

The clash is the latest between fighters from the mostly Muslim rebel Seleka coalition and peacekeepers, and could deepen antagonism in the north of the country towards French forces.

At least five people were injured, four of them Seleka fighters who have been resisting attempts to disarm them by French forces deployed in their former colony as part of the Sangaris peacekeeping operation.

The soldiers used stun grenades to try to disperse civilians wielding machetes who blocked the bridge, but then came under fire from automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. They brought in at least two helicopter gunships and fired mortars.

"We were confronted by individuals who fired at the Sangaris forces and we immediately responded," said Colonel Gilles Jaron, spokesman for the French army.

French forces fired a mortar as a warning shot and then followed up with anti-tank missiles, which destroyed a pick-up truck and likely caused casualties, a French army source said.

The Reuters witness said that the 10-15 rebels on the bridge did not have a pick-up truck.


Residents say Christians and Muslims live in harmony in Bambari, a market town of 65,000 people. Though its mud-brick houses attest to its poverty, the town is a crossroads for traders and a starting point for journeys to Chad and Cameroon.

The town's strategic value, however, lies in its position at what could be regarded as the dividing line between the largely Christian south and the Muslim-dominated north.

On Thursday, French forces in Bambari came under fire after they tried to disarm Seleka rebels, who have their headquarters at the town and still control the northeast of the country after being driven from Bangui. At least one person was killed.

Following a meeting on Wednesday, the peacekeeping troops demanded that members of the Seleka hand over weapons.

Crowds of civilians carrying machetes and hunting rifles took to the streets early on Thursday in protest and blocked roads in the center of Bambari with market stalls and furniture.

Muslims in Bambari are unwilling to give up their weapons after similar moves in Bangui led to attacks on Muslims there.

Central African Republic descended into chaos after Seleka rebels seized power in March last year and their attacks on the majority Christian population set off a wave of reprisals.

The Seleka coalition was forced to relinquish power under international pressure in January. Since then, Christian militias known as "anti-balaka" have mounted widespread attacks on Muslims.

More than 2,000 people have been killed in the violence and a million of the country's 4.5 million people have been forced from their homes despite the presence of several thousand African peacekeepers and European Union and French troops.

(Additional reporting by Leila Abboud, John Irish and Gregory Blachier in Paris; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Lynne O'Donnell)

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