Central African president makes fresh appeal for peace

Xavier Bourgois
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Central African people leave the PK5 neighborhood in Bangui with their belongings on December 24, 2013

The president of Central African Republic Tuesday made a new appeal for peace to stop the sectarian killings that have terrorised the country, while Burundian and Chadian troops sent to help restore calm traded fire in Bangui.

Michel Djotodia, former Seleka rebel leader who seized power in a March coup, called for an end to the "massacres" as violence has swelled between Muslims and Christians.

"Love one another! We find that in the Bible and the Koran," said the interim president, flanked by local religious leaders from the Christian and Islamic faiths.

He also banned all illegal demonstrations in Bangui and accused ousted president Francois Bozize and his supporters of being behind the violence which "massacres innocent Central Africans."

Meanwhile, two contingents of peacekeepers in a UN-mandated African force exchanged fire in the capital on Monday, according to the Burundian military.

The exchange occurred as the Chadians, mainly because they are Muslim, face accusations of complicity with the Seleka rebels who overthrew Bozize in the predominantly Christian country now gearing up for Christmas.

Lieutenant-Colonel Pontien Hakizimana, head of the Burundian contingent in the African force MISCA, told AFP in Bujumbura that his men were disarming former rebels when Chad's MISCA troops threw a grenade and opened fire on them, prompting some Burundian elements to return fire, wounding three Chadians.

"On Monday morning we intercepted six armed ex-Seleka and we disarmed them," Hakizimana told AFP from Bangui.

A group of Chadian soldiers went by on a truck and threw a grenade at the Burundians, which exploded without causing any casualties, he said.

"Then the Chadians left with the ex-Seleka, firing in all directions," he said, adding some of his men came under fire and retaliated, wounding three Chadians.

"The Chadians soldiers came back in greater numbers in the afternoon and attacked our positions," Hakizimana said, adding that Burundian troops had repelled them.

There was no immediate comment from the Chadian contingent.

A military source in Bujumbura said relations between the Burundians and the Chadians had been strained ever since the Chadians in the MISCA had been re-deployed outside the capital and the Burundians tasked with securing Bangui.

The rare incident in which peacekeepers traded fire put fresh pressure on the Chadian contingent, which accounts for 850 of the 3,700-strong MISCA force but is accused by many people in Bangui of backing the Seleka.

It follows an incident on Monday when Chadian soldiers opened fire on hundreds of stone-throwing protesters, mostly Christians, killing one man and wounding around 40 others, three seriously.

Traditionally influential in the Central African Republic, President Idriss Deby Itno's Chad is France's main partner in its efforts to re-establish peace in the country.

But the growing defiance of Central Africans toward the Chadian contingent is complicating the task of the 1,600 French troops deployed to the country since the beginning of December.

The deployment came after Djotodia officially disbanded Seleka, but some of its members went rogue, leading to months of killing, rape and pillaging -- and prompting Christians to form vigilante groups in response.

Amnesty International says some 1,000 people have been killed since December 5, mostly by Muslim ex-rebels but also in Christian reprisal attacks.

Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries within Seleka are blamed for many of the worst crimes against civilians.

'No to France!'

French soldiers meanwhile are being accused by Muslims of siding with the country's Christian population as they disarm the Seleka and leave the Muslim population defenceless against many Christians who seek revenge for Seleka excesses.

Overnight Monday, gunfire erupted in the mainly-Muslim PK5 neighbourhood where two Muslims had been lynched earlier and their bodies mutilated.

Residents said Tuesday that the attack was carried out by Christian militias while several hundred protesters gathered to denounce what they perceived as the inaction of French troops.

"The French took the side of those who are attacking us," one of the protesters, Jibril Assil, said. "They give weapons to the anti-balaka (militias)."

In the neighbourhood, signs hung from homes saying: "No to France."

In the runup to Christmas Eve, activity was relatively normal in the capital as some stores broadcast Christmas songs from loudspeakers and salesmen offered red Santa Claus hats at dusty crossroads under a baking heat.

Because of a night curfew, churches will hold Christmas Eve mass in the afternoon.