LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Armed forces who seized power in Central African Republic (CAR) this year are out of control, executing civilians, gang-raping women, conscripting children and looting aid, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.
The rights group called in a report for national authorities and the international community to take urgent action to establish law and order in the chronically unstable country, where the humanitarian situation risks “reaching a point of no return”.
“The level of hopelessness and despair has reached a new high as a result of these persistent, large scale human rights violations, which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said the report’s author Godfrey Byaruhanga.
Seleka, an alliance of armed groups which was unknown a year ago, launched an offensive against former President Francois Bozize last December, eventually ousting him in March.
The report, compiled following a trip by Amnesty researchers to CAR in July and August, says Seleka soldiers have tortured and killed civilians, carried out indiscriminate shelling and burned homes. Many people have been killed for resisting pillaging and extortion.
In one case in July, soldiers killed as many as 200 people, including children, hiding in the forest after fleeing violence in their village in Basse-Kotto province, Amnesty said.
Researchers were told by a senior government official that ministers who were not heads of Seleka factions were powerless to prevent human rights violations.
Even President Michel Djotodia, the Seleka leader who declared himself president, is disobeyed by forces outside his own faction, the official said.
The Seleka alliance is reported to have recruited former criminals, including bandits and poachers, as well as Chadian and Sudanese fighters, who are believed to have committed a large number of abuses.
“The CAR has been undergoing a human rights crisis for several decades. It has clearly degenerated into a human rights disaster since December 2012,” Amnesty said.
RAPE, SEX SLAVES, CHILD SOLDIERS
Women interviewed for the report described how they had been gang raped by Seleka soldiers. One said she had been raped in view of her crying children during an ordeal lasting hours. She spent several days in intensive care but cannot afford further treatment.
Some rape victims have been abandoned by their husbands or partners with serious social and economic consequences, Amnesty said. Others fear their injuries may have rendered them infertile.
Girls have also been forced into sexual slavery as the so-called wives of military officers.
Seleka’s ranks include up to 3,500 child soldiers under the age of 18, according to an estimate by local organisations and the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF. Researchers were told some had been recruited from Chad and Sudan.
Amnesty said it was extremely concerned that many children were effectively being held hostage for use as bargaining chips by foreign commanders waiting to be paid by the CAR government for their role in the war.
Seleka has also paralysed humanitarian operations by targeting aid workers and stealing vehicles, equipment, food stocks and medical supplies, the report said.
In September, Seleka militia in Bossangoa executed two workers from French humanitarian organisation ACTED.
In another incident, Amnesty said Seleka forces broke into a children’s orphanage in Bangui and opened fire, traumatising the children. They took vehicles, computers and mobile phones.
“Humanitarian workers have been attacked and/or prevented from carrying out their work, severely reducing their ability and capacity to assist civilians, including sick and malnourished children, in dire need of aid,” the rights group added.
Amnesty said there were fears that some of the violence seemed to be aimed at religious groups, with predominantly Muslim members of Seleka targeting Christians, which in turn appeared to have triggered retaliatory attacks on Muslims.
It also said there were other armed groups - including some reported to be fighting for Bozize’s return - who were targeting civilians supporting the new government.
Amnesty called upon the CAR authorities to condemn all human rights abuses, investigate crimes committed by all sides, bring perpetrators to justice, provide reparations for victims and remove children from armed groups.
“The Central African authorities have shown scant signs of ending these human rights violations or bringing the perpetrators to justice and the international community’s efforts are piecemeal and ineffective,” Byaruhanga said.
The report also called for the African Union - supported by other intergovernmental organisations and foreign governments - to ensure the immediate protection of civilians from Seleka and other armed groups.
The African Union has promised to deploy some 3,500 soldiers in CAR, but Byaruhanga said less than half that number were in place, adding that even the full number would be “grossly inadequate” in a country more than twice the size of France.