Nineteen troops taken by rebels in northern Central African Republic in February have been released, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday.
Out of 20 soldiers seized in the raid in Vakaga region on February 14, 19 have been released and will arrive shortly in the town of Birao “and will remain there until their return to Bangui can be organized,” deputy mission chief Yves Van Loo told AFP, referring to the CAR capital.
The 19 “seem to be in good health and able to make the journey,” he said.
The 20th soldier is receiving medical treatment for wounds and “will be picked up at a different location later,” he said.
The troops had been seized by a group called the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) after clashes at the village of Sikikede that the government had said inflicted “considerable losses” on its forces.
The landlocked CAR is one of the poorest and most troubled countries in the world, despite abundant mineral wealth.
It remains scarred by a 2013 civil war, unleashed by a coup against then-president Francois Bozize, in which armed groups battled along sectarian lines.
The CPC is an alliance of militias created in 2020 in a bid to overthrow Bozize’s successor, Faustin Archange Touadera.
In a statement, the CPC said it had taken a “voluntary and unilateral decision” to release the 20 following “negotiations” with the ICRC and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country, MINUSCA.
The release of the 19 took place in an area where access is difficult, hampered by fighting between the rebels on the one side and the CAR on the other, United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country, MINUSCA.
Armed forces spokesman Augustin Ndando Kpako said the release of the 20 “had been our greatest priority… we wanted to see them free.”
But the CPC accused Touadera, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, of refusing to get involved in securing the release of the men.
“The deafening silence of President Touadera… and his defence minister demonstrate the lack of interest, the contempt even, that they have for soldiers,” the CPC said.
The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The CPC triggered a regional alarm when it advanced on Bangui in December 2020 as presidential and legislative elections loomed.
They were thwarted with the help of Russian paramilitaries, who were rushed in to shore up the country’s fragile military after an appeal by Touadera.
Their presence became the trigger for a chill in relations between CAR and France, the country’s former colonial power and traditional ally.
France, the UN, and others say they are mercenaries from the Wagner group, who have been linked with atrocities and looting of resources.
Facing a mounting anti-French campaign allegedly steered by Russia, France suspended military cooperation and last December pulled its last troops from the country.