Central African Republic: Ex-Seleka militias regroup as president urges shift in UN posture

Touadera wants the Minusca mission to shift to peace enforcement as militias regroup in wake of a controversial operation in Bangui

President Faustin-Archange Touadera this week told the United Nations he wants to “accelerate” the disarmament of members of armed groups in Central African Republic, and for the U.N.’s Minusca mission to transition from peacekeeping to peace enforcement, as ex-Seleka militias regrouped in the northeast of the country and threatened to march on the capital.

“I have instructed my government to work toward reducing the harm and threat of armed groups in the Central African Republic, by accelerating the implementation of the disarmament, reintegration and repatriation program,” he said at a Monday, April 23 meeting concerning the peace process in the country.

Such an operation would require “necessary reforms of the security sector for the reconstitution of national defense forces and interior security forces,” Touadera added.

Central African Republic President Faustin Archange Touadera speaks at uN meeting
Central African Republic President Faustin Archange Touadera speaks at a United Nations high-level meeting on the country, April 23, 2018. Image: @UNPeacebuilding/Twitter

Touadera was referring to an agreement signed in May 2015 aimed at disarming and demobilizing combatants and initiating reintegration programs to enable them to obtain employment. The agreement also allows for integration into CAR’s state forces. A pilot project involving 560 combatants from various armed groups began in August 2017.

He again called for additional personnel to be deployed to the U.N. mission, and for the force to transition from peacekeeping to a more forceful imposition of peace “to avoid undermining efforts to consolidate and sustain peace, often due to diffuse, inconsistent and sometimes contradictory or competitive international action.”

He stressed that “consolidation of peace … can only be achieved through the restoration of security throughout the territory, the fight against impunity, the restoration of state authority throughout the territory.”

According to a February report to the U.N. Security Council, Minusca had deployed 10,665 military personnel, 90 percent of the total authorized strength of 11,650, as well as 2,044 police and 1,390 civilian personnel.

Touadera urged “dialogue” as the preferred approach to combat the violence that has ravaged the Central African Republic since 2013.

Morocco’s U.N. envoy Omar Hilale, who initiated Monday’s meeting, assured the Central African Republic of the U.N.’s “support” and said he would soon travel to Bangui.

Touadera, a former prime minister who campaigned as a peacemaker, was declared the winner of a 2016 presidential election perceived as crucial to transitioning from years of sectarian violence.

His weak government now only controls around a fifth of the Central African Republic and relies heavily on Minusca for support. The rest is controlled by at least 14 different militia groups who often fight each other for control of revenue from extortion, roadblocks or mineral resources.

Tensions rise after UN Bangui operation

Touadera’s comments came as the FPRC – the Popular Front for the Rebirth of Central Africa, one of the country’s largest armed groups – threatened to march on Bangui.

FPRC spokesperson Aboubakar Sidik Ali said on April 13 that the option to move on the capital “is not excluded” after a meeting of ex-Seleka groups in the country’s northeast that discussed “military coordination,” France24 reported.

According to AFP, the group said it wanted to act following Operation Sukula, a U.N. peacekeeper action against armed groups in the PK5 enclave in the capital that the FPRC said singled-out Muslims.

Between April 8 and 11, at least 18 people including a U.N. peacekeeper were killed and more than 100 injured in clashes in PK5, in what was described as a joint U.N.-Central African forces operation against armed groups in the mainly Muslim neighborhood. Jeune Afrique reported that at least 28 people were killed. According to France24, an April 18 assessment by the Central African Red Cross said 32 people died and 145 were wounded.

PK5’s population was initially supportive of the armed groups, comprised mainly of ex-Seleka fighters and set up to defend against anti-balaka vigilante attacks, but recently they have been accused by some of intimidation and extorting protection money, and Minusca considers them criminal.

Spokesperson Vladimir Monteiro has repeatedly said Minusca troops targeted criminal gangs during the operation.

“This is not an operation against communities and specifically the Muslim community. The Muslim community asked our troops to launch the operation and put an end to the criminal activities,” he said on April 11.

Minusca said it would dismantle all the armed groups’ bases unless they hand over their weapons, but the groups’ leaders refused, despite a mediation organized by community leaders.

Ex-Seleka factions gather in Kaga Bandoro

Key locations in the Central African RepublicWithin three days of the events in PK5, heavily armed ex-Seleka faction members began regrouping in Kaga Bandoro in northeastern CAR, around 350 km from Bangui, arriving in 4×4 vehicles and on motorbikes.

Radio Ndeke Luka reported that members of the Patriotic Movement for the Central African Republic (MPC) and the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) as well as FPRC elements were staging in the reportedly MPC-controlled town.

The leaders of the three groups were significant players in the mainly Muslim Seleka coalition that forced president François Bozizé from power in March 2013, although they have been rivals since Seleka was dissolved six months later.

Led by Noureddine Adam, the FPRC controls a large part of northeastern CAR. Along with Adam, a number of its leaders have been sanctioned by the U.N., African Union and United States, including Michel Djotodia who took over as CAR’s president in 2013, after Bozizé’s ousting.

After Seleka was officially disbanded, many fighters refused to disarm, becoming known as ex-Seleka. Many others joined the mainly Christian anti-balaka militia to fight the Seleka rebels, leading to a spiral of violence between groups along both religious and ethnic lines in which thousands died.

Djotodia resigned in January 2014 and that July, Seleka and anti-balaka representatives signed a ceasefire agreement. By the end of 2014, the country was de facto partitioned – anti-Balaka in the southwest and ex-Seleka in the northeast.

According to an August 2017 report by the Washington D.C.-based Enough Project, the FPRC has in the past advocated the overthrow of the government to re-establish a Seleka regime or the formal partition of the country.

UN’s Minusca mission monitors

“We have indeed established the arrival of some FPRC elements,” Minusca spokesperson Vladimir Monteiro told Radio Ndeke Luka on April 17.

“Minusca is following this situation closely, but for the moment there is no threat to the population,” Monteiro added, reiterating the view that the operation in PK5 targeted “criminal groups, not the Muslim community.”

On Monday, Monteiro told AFP: “Last week there was an attempt to move [from] Kaga-Bandoro, but we dissuaded them from continuing.”

Guy Yves Mbetigaza, a local administrator from Dekoa, south of Kaga Bandoro, said on Tuesday that Burundian U.N. peacekeepers were enforcing a vehicle checkpoint in Ndomete, around 10 km from Kaga Bandoro, preventing armed groups from moving towards Bangui at night.

On Wednesday, Le Monde reported that Minusca sent special forces to Sibut, around 180 km north of the capital. According to the newspaper, France, which ended its military intervention in CAR in 2016, conducted aerial reconnaissance and made contact with rebel leaders in a bid to dissuade them from attacking Bangui.

At a Wednesday press conference, Minusca spokesperson Vladimir Monteiro said the mission condemned the “destabilization attempts” by the FPRC, including the “willingness expressed by this movement to position troops at Sibut,” describing the action as “an unacceptable provocation” in direct opposition to the peace process and the Central African authorities.

Minusca Police spokesperson Captain Leo Franck Gnapié at the press conference spoke about measures taken to deal with any escalation of violence, citing interventions carried out in Bambari and Kaga-Bandoro.

“In Kaga-Bandoro, on April 23, a Minusca police patrol intercepted a pickup truck with two armed individuals on board, who were in possession of a rifle with a magazine and 148 rounds of ammunition,” Gnapié said, adding that the vehicle and its occupants were taken to a Minusca base for investigation.

Minusca military spokesperson Major Séraphin Embondza said that that the Commander of the Minusca Force, Senegal’s Lieutenant-General Balla Keita, along with his deputy, travelled to Kaga Bandoro, Dekoa, Sibut and Paoua to determine the security situation and prepare for any threats posed by the FPRC.

According to the Minusca release, Embondza said that calm is becoming established in most localities despite isolated tensions and acts of violence, highlighting an April 22 incident in Nassole, near Berberati in the west of the country, in which four people were reportedly killed in clashes between U.N. peacekeepers and the Siriri armed group.

The Defense Post contacted Minusca seeking clarification of the current situation but has not yet received a reply.

Update April 26 FPRC spokesperson Aboubakar Sidik Ali said on April 25 that the option to move on the capital remains “on the agenda, since the government said the operation will continue,” RJDH reported.

“Our goal is to protect the civilian population. There are civilians in the 3rd district [in Bangui] and we must protect them,” Sidik Ali said.

Referring to disarmament efforts, he said “it must be done in all neighborhoods and throughout the territory,” implying that all groups must be perceived to be treated equally.

RJDH, also reported a new ex-Séléka regrouping in Ndélé, northeast of Kaga Bandoro. Sidik Ali did not confirm the build-up, but said “we have a very large coverage of the territory, so we can regroup anywhere.”

With reporting from AFP

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