Portuguese peacekeepers battled for five hours to protect civilians and restore order after militants killed two police officers in the Central African Republic town of Bambari ahead of a scheduled visit by the country’s president on Thursday, January 10.
The attack came a day after President Faustin-Archange Touadera announced that the government would meet armed groups in African Union-brokered peace talks in Khartoum.
Members of the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) ex-Seleka militia and their allies carried out “various attacks” in the town early Thursday, a government statement said.
“Two policemen were killed and another was wounded,” Communications Minister Ange-Maxime Kazagui told AFP.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said it was treating 30 people for bullet wounds. MSF later said 26 people were still being treated but one person had died in hospital.
Corbeau News reported that around 10 people were killed, but it was not possible to confirm this toll.
The government later said on Twitter that 20 UPC members were killed and 15 others wounded.
According to an internal U.N. report seen by AFP, a combatant called “General Bello,” in charge of UPC fighters in Bambari, had been wounded.
Portuguese paratroopers in five-hour firefight
Minusca, the U.N. peacekeeping force in the country, sent peacekeepers to the site of the clashes, spokesperson Vladimir Monteiro told AFP. Its troops there had come under fire a day earlier, he added.
On Wednesday, the General Staff of the Portuguese Armed Forces said that paratroopers had deployed to Bambari, using its General Dynamics Pandur II wheeled armored vehicles for the first time in Africa.
On Thursday, the Portuguese “blue helmets spent five hours in direct combat” with UPC militants “with the objective of protecting civilians and restoring peace, interposing itself between the opposition group and the defenseless civilian population,” the General Staff said.
The UPC had used heavy weapons during the attack, putting civilians in the crossfire during confrontations with the Central African Armed Forces (FACa), it said, adding that all the paratroopers were safe.
Portugal has contributed peacekeepers to Minusca since the beginning of 2017. A total of 180 personnel, mainly paratroopers, are deployed, with a special company operating from the capital Bangui as a Rapid Reaction Force.
Portugal contributes a further 50 personnel to the European Union Training Mission in CAR (EUTM-RCA), and Portugal’s Major General Hermínio Maio has since January 2018 served as Mission Force Commander in theatre. He leads a total of 187 personnel from Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, Italy, Georgia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain and Sweden. On January 8, personnel from Brazil joined the mission.
The E.U. mission has trained more than 3,000 personnel to serve in FACa, and last July, the bloc extended EUTM-RCA until 2020, pledging €25 million ($29 million) to help reform the country’s defense sector. The scope of the mission was also modified to give strategic advice to the president’s cabinet, interior ministry and police, as well as the military.
Bambari: A city without arms or armed groups?
Bambari, in the center of CAR, straddles several areas under the influence of various armed groups and enjoyed a relative calm after the intervention of Minusca in early 2017 to oust the UPC. The U.N. subsequently made Bambari a showcase for its Central African Republic intervention, arguing that the town was ‘without arms or armed groups,’ but over the past six months there have been a number of other significant violent incidents in the town.
On May 16, Minusca said it had retaken control of Bambari following two days of violence that left at least eight people dead. The U.N. said around 7,000 people had fled their homes, while the Central African Red Cross (CRCA) said that 32 people had died and 23 were injured.
According to some reports, fighters from the UPC, an ex-Seleka militia group led by Ali Darras, were responsible for the violence in Bambari, but a UPC spokesperson denied that its fighters had entered the town.
On May 22, the Minusca Force Commander, Senegal’s Lieutenant General Balla Keita said that peacekeepers in support of the government would use any means necessary to restore security to Bambari. Keita said that additional Minusca personnel would be deployed to the town to ensure respect for the U.N.’s flagship “Bambari without armed groups” initiative, calling it a “showcase of the restoration of the authority of the state.”
But on June 10, a Burundian peacekeeper was killed and another blue helmet seriously injured during three hours of clashes with the UPC.
On October 31, a Portuguese paratrooper suffered minor injuries after being hit during clashes with an armed group in Bambari, the General Staff said. Two days later, Portuguese troops fought for seven hours for control of the town against militants who used heavy weapons and launched rocket propelled grenades from fortified positions. The military later published dramatic video of its troops in combat.
On November 17, three Central African military personnel died and three were injured in a shootout between soldiers in Bambari that pitted members of military engineering units against each other. The engineers had been deployed to undertake work in preparation for delayed World Food Day celebrations.
Bambari attacks ‘unacceptable’ after peace talks agreed
Touadera had been scheduled to visit Bambari on Thursday and Friday to attend ceremonies for World Food Day.
The ceremonies, initially set for October 16, had already been postponed at least twice because of unrest and were suspended once more after the latest clashes.
“The seriousness of these attacks is all the more unacceptable” given that the authorities agreed to open talks with the rebels, the government statement said.
On Wednesday, Touadera announced long-awaited African Union-backed peace talks between the government and armed groups set for January 24 in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.
Supported by the U.N. and CAR’s main partners, the A.U. has been striving to kick-start negotiations between the militias and the government since July 2017, but some diplomats and observers have criticized the process for inefficiency.
In August, an African Union facilitation panel met with armed groups, where they agreed 104 demands later presented to the government.
Further east, the town of Bakouma remained under the control of another ex-Seleka rebel group, the Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic (FPRC), AFP reported. The FPRC attacked the town in late December, and on January 9, the U.N. said more than 12,000 people had been displaced to ‘roads and forests’ due to violence in Bakouma. According to some reports, the UPC was also involved in the violence.
Despite reserves of diamonds, gold, uranium, copper and iron, Central African Republic remains one of the world’s poorest countries.
The majority-Christian country descended into violence following the 2013 ousting of President Francois Bozize in 2013 by the Seleka, a coalition of mainly Muslim rebel groups.
Seleka was officially disbanded within months, but many fighters refused to disarm, becoming known as ex-Seleka. Many others joined the mainly Christian anti-balaka militia to fight the Seleka, leading to a spiral of violence between groups along religious and ethnic lines.
By the end of 2014, CAR was de facto partitioned – anti-balaka in the southwest and ex-Seleka in the northeast.
Touadera’s weak government controls around a fifth of the country and relies heavily on the U.N. peacekeeping mission, Minusca, for support. The rest is controlled by at least 14 different militia groups who often fight each other for revenue from extortion, roadblocks or mineral resources.
Violence by both sides led to thousands of deaths. Nearly 700,000 people are displaced and 570,000 have fled the country, according to the U.N.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 2.9 million people – more than 63 percent of the population – will need humanitarian assistance in 2019.
Seven peace agreements have been signed since the crisis erupted in 2012, but none has endured.
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With reporting from AFP