NAIROBI, Kenya — For more than 100 residents of Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, a United Nations resolution allowing peacekeepers to use force to protect civilians came tragically late on Thursday.
Scores of people were killed and many more injured in heavy gun battles that broke out just hours before a scheduled vote at the UN Security Council.
Anti-government militias, their ranks allegedly stacked with child soldiers, launched pre-dawn attacks in different parts of the capital. Sporadic gunfire was heard throughout much of the day.
Bloodied bodies, some roughly covered in bright prints typically used to clothe the living, were stacked in the city morgue news photographs showed. In the hospital, makeshift triages and intensive care units were set up in corridors. The wounded writhed in pain as they bled onto the cement floor.
Supporters of ousted president Francoise Bozize, backed by Christian militias known as “anti-balaka,” are believed to be behind Thursday’s attacks, the most significant in Bangui since the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel alliance took control in March. In recent months violence has become increasingly sectarian.
One-time Seleka leader Michel Djotodia was installed as interim president in September but has lost control of many of the forces that propelled him to power. Ex-Seleka fighters now roam the countryside stealing, raping, pillaging and murdering with impunity. In response, “anti-balaka” — literally meaning anti-machete — militias have risen up to protect Christian communities and seek revenge against Muslims.
The corpses of at least 54 people killed with bullets or machetes were brought to a mosque in the mostly Muslim PK5 district of the capital on Thursday. The homes of both president Djotodia and Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye were looted.
As the wave of killing ebbed in the tiny riverside capital, diplomats in New York approved a resolution proposed by France that permits a 3,600-strong African Union peacekeeping mission to use force to protect civilians and restore law and order. The African-led International Support Mission in CAR, or MISCA, is backed by 1,200 French soldiers.
The resolution, unanimously approved by all 15 Security Council members, also imposes an arms embargo on CAR and prepares the groundwork for a possible UN peacekeeping mission at a later date.
France already has about 600 troops in Bangui and 250 of them were deployed on the streets of the capital to help quell the fighting on Thursday ahead of the UN vote. The African force is currently 1,000 short of its total. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that many more could be needed if the situation continues to worsen.
Prime Minister Tiangaye, who is in Paris ahead of a Franco-African summit due to begin on Friday, welcomed the UN-mandated intervention but told Agence France-Presse the plan is “insufficient given our needs for security.”
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said the intervention would begin at once. “I have decided to act immediately, in other words, this evening,” he told journalists in Paris.
The US State Department said it was “appalled” by Thursday’s carnage. In a statement it described accounts of the killings in Bangui as “the latest in a string of reports that illustrate the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation … that could lead to an escalation in violence and further atrocities.”
France and others have said that CAR is “on the verge of genocide,” but analysts say the warning is alarmist and premature.
Thibaud Lesueur, Central Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, said it’s too early to call the violence genocide. But it is clear that a once non-religious conflict is turning increasingly sectarian, Lesueur said.
“CAR is now ungovernable and the transitional authorities, religious leaders and civil society organizations are calling for help.”
By nightfall on Thursday, CAR’s capital was “effectively in shutdown,” said Christian Mukosa, Amnesty International’s Central Africa expert.
He said doctors were unable to get to hospitals to treat the wounded because of the insecurity. “Hospital staff are being overwhelmed by the current crisis,” he said.
Mokasa cited “reliable sources” saying that child soldiers were involved in Thursday’s violence and that some of the attackers were armed with nothing more than iron bars and machetes.