The United Nations refugee agency warned today that the violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) has sent thousands of people streaming into neighbouring countries, while the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced plans to open a preliminary investigation into alleged war crimes being committed amid the ongoing sectarian bloodshed.
A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said nearly 9,000 people – most Central Africans but also foreign nationals from Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Mali – have fled CAR for neighbouring Cameroon.
“That brings the number of CAR refugees in Cameroon to more than 20,000 since fighting started,” Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba told reporters in Geneva, adding that the new arrivals told UNHCR that they fled because of confrontations between the former Séléka and anti-Balaka militiamen in the capital, Bangui.
“Others fled because of fear that the anti-Balaka militiamen were advancing towards their areas,” she added.
Thousands of people are estimated to have been killed in CAR, and 2.2 million, about half the population, need humanitarian aid in a conflict which erupted when mainly Muslim Séléka rebels launched attacks in December 2012 and has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones as mainly Christian militias known as anti-Balaka (anti-machete) have taken up arms. Nearly half a million children are among the almost 1 million driven from their homes.
Most of the people registered by UNHCR as refugees are women and children, including 43 pregnant women, 50 lactating mothers and 89 handicapped people in need of special attention. “The majority of them are Muslims who said they feared for their safety because of their perceived sympathy for the largely Muslim Séléka group,” she said.
Meanwhile, from The Hague, Netherlands, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that after reviewing many reports detailing acts of extreme brutality by various groups and allegations of serious crimes, her Office will open a preliminary examination into the situation in CAR.
“Over the past months, I have issued a number of public statements urging all groups in the Central African Republic engaged in the ongoing conflict to immediately cease the violence, and warning them that those alleged to be committing heinous crimes falling within the jurisdiction of the [ICC] could be held individually accountable,” she said in a press release.
Underscoring that the plight of civilians in CAR since September 2012 “has gone from bad to worse,” Ms. Bensouda said the information she has received concerning these alleged crimes and the profound human suffering they cause is deeply concerning.
“The allegations include hundreds of killings, acts of rape and sexual slavery, destruction of property, pillaging, torture, forced displacement and recruitment and use of children in hostilities,” she said adding that in many incidents, the victims appear to have been deliberately targeted on religious grounds.
In light of such disturbing allegations, Ms. Bensouda said that her Office’s further efforts will be aimed at gathering and analyzing all the information necessary to determine whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation into this new situation.
“My Office’s efforts will be coordinated with those of the African Union and the United Nations in CAR,” she said, adding that in conformity with the complementarity principle, the ICC will also be engaging with the CAR authorities with a view to discussing ways and means to bring perpetrators to account, including at the national level.
On other fronts, a UN spokesperson in New York said that the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in CAR, Babacar Gaye, met today with the Head of State of the Transition in the country, Catherine Samba- Panza, for the first time since her election last month.
During the meeting, Ms. Samba- Panza said that the lynching of an alleged ex-Séléka combatant by soldiers of the national army on 5 February in Bangui was unacceptable.
The spokesperson said that Mr. Gaye noted with satisfaction the determination of the Head of State of the Transition to bring the perpetrators of this act to justice as soon as possible. Mr. Gaye also encouraged her to prioritize justice, reconciliation and political dialogue.