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BANGUI, Central African Republic, May 30 (UNHCR) - In one of the year's worst attacks on safe havens for displaced people in the country, at least 17 people were killed and 27 are missing after armed men threw grenades and opened fire on Bangui's Notre Dame de Fatima church on Wednesday.
Among the dead are the church's priest, with two children and two adults succumbing to their injuries on Thursday. The missing civilians were reportedly abducted by the assailants who drove them to an unknown location.
"UNHCR strongly condemns this attack against innocent civilians," said UNHCR spokesperson Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba at a Geneva press briefing on Friday. "We call again all sides of the armed conflict to protect civilians, in line with their obligations under international law. We also call on all sides of the conflict to allow for the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance and unhindered access to the people in need of protection and aid."
At the time of the attack, the Notre Dame de Fatima was hosting 9,000 internally displaced people, including 2,050 who moved there only a week earlier to escape from rising insecurity in nearby neighbourhoods. Others had been staying there since December 2013.
The church is now empty. Those who fled have either moved to the surrounding neighbourhoods or southwards towards 10 sites in the capital and the adjacent area of Bimbo.
"Many fled without anything - no money, no food, not even a mat to sleep on. Others had bullet wounds that need to be attended to urgently," said Lejeune-Kaba. "Compounding their hardship, the overcrowded IDP sites they moved to face shortages in water, food, shelter and basic healthcare."
Until recently, churches, monasteries and mosques have been safe havens for displaced people across the Central African Republic. In Bangui, 32 out of 43 IDP sites are religious institutions.
Security in the CAR capital has deteriorated sharply since last weekend. On Sunday May 25, three people heading to an inter-communal reconciliation football match were killed in the PK5 neighbourhood, purportedly by anti-Balaka elements. On Monday and Tuesday, the situation remained tense and shootings were reported. On Wednesday, inter-communal hostilities culminated with the attack at Notre Dame de Fatima.
Other parts of the country have also seen violence in the last 10 days. For example, in Bambari in Ouaka province north-east of Bangui, clashes erupted on May 21 and 24 between French Sangaris elements and armed civilians over the implementation of confidence-building measures and the cantonment of ex-Seleka forces.
Meanwhile, UNHCR partners have documented progressive returns in areas of the north-western Ouham-Pende and the northern Ouham provinces. With the mixed displacement trends, the overall number of IDPs remains at 557,000 across the country, including 132,000 in Bangui. There are also 120,994 CAR refugees in neighbouring countries.