(Bangui) - Heavily armed Seleka fighters joined by Muslim Peuhl cattle herders on February 26, 2014, carried out a deadly attack on the village of Bowai, northeast of Bossangoa, Human Rights Watch said today. The attack killed eight people, and at least 10 others - mostly young children - were wounded by gunfire. After the civilian population fled, the attackers burned many buildings in the village, in some cases trapping people in their homes prior to setting them alight.
Human Rights Watch warned that further Seleka attacks on civilians could occur, and urged French and African forces to step up patrols in the area, located around 60 kilometers northeast of Bossangoa. France, the African Union (AU), the European Union, and concerned countries should urgently bolster efforts to provide effective protection to civilians, including by deploying additional troops and by strengthening AU troops already on the ground.
"Seleka fighters have returned to the Bossangoa area to continue their deadly attacks on the local population," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. "French and AU forces should put troops in the region to prevent further Seleka attacks."
According to multiple eyewitness accounts collected by Human Rights Watch, as well as confidential information from humanitarian sources, a large group of heavily armed Seleka fighters, supported by Peuhl cattle herders, surrounded the village of Bowai at about midday on February 26 and immediately began firing randomly at the population, who fled in terror. The Peuhl are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who dominate the cattle trade in West and Central Africa.
Innocent Daibenamna, 44, told Human Rights Watch he was at his home in the village when the attack started at about 1 p.m.:
It was the Seleka and the Peuhl who came to attack us, and started burning all the homes. They came on foot and were heavily armed; there were over 100 of them. They first encircled the village, so we couldn't escape. The Seleka fighters were in military uniforms with red and green berets, but the Peuhl were in their traditional dress. They were armed with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades, and heavy caliber machine guns.… When the shooting started, we all ran away into the bush in fear. Then they came inside the village and burned all the homes. Eight people, we know, have died, and we brought 10 wounded to Bossangoa, but other children are still missing and may be dead in the bush as well.
Seleka and Peuhl fighters shot Maxim Beamkoma, 35, in the foot, locked him in his home, and set it on fire with him inside. He survived the assault:
I was sitting at my house when the Seleka and Peuhl attacked. They started firing and I fled inside the house, and at that time I was shot and wounded in the foot. Then, they locked me inside and put the thatch roof on fire above me. I knew that if I went outside they would kill me, so I had to stay inside the burning house.
Hortense Dansio, a 21-year-old mother, told Human Rights Watch that she fled the attackers with her 1-year-old daughter, Aminata Beamkona, in her arms, but the baby, while being carried, was shot in both legs by a Seleka fighter:
The baby was in my arms when we fled, as the Seleka and Peuhl attacked. I saw the one who shot us. He was a Seleka in military uniform. He aimed for us and shot and wounded Aminata in her legs, and I had to keep running.
The surviving villagers told Human Rights Watch that the majority of the wounded were young children, and that at least three of the dead were children as well. Debonheur Beamkona, 4, was wounded in the legs by the same bullet that killed his mother, Yasmine Nganassem, 24, who was carrying him while fleeing. His grandmother, Catherine Goudongoye, 54, was also shot dead. Irma Beamkoma, 4, was shot dead as she tried to flee. Divina Beamkoma, 7, was also shot in the legs while fleeing. More than a dozen children and adults are still missing and feared dead, including Girabelle Bassanguanam, 13, and Geraldine Beamkoma, 7. "The brutality of the Seleka fighters remains undiminished - most of the dead and wounded from Bowai were women and children fleeing in terror," said Bouckaert. "Seleka fighters should be held to account for these heinous crimes." The February 26 attack on Bowai was the first major Seleka attack in the Bossangoa area in months, following the containment of Seleka fighters in Bossangoa by French forces in December, and their departure from Bossangoa in mid-January. However, Seleka fighters also carried out attacks northwest of Bossangoa, on the village of Boguila on February 28, and the village of Nana Baria on March 7. In both attacks, the Seleka fighters looted humanitarian organizations and stole humanitarian vehicles. The fighters also burned civilian homes and fired at the population to force them to flee their villages. The continued presence and movement of the Seleka in the area around Bossangoa poses a threat to many nearby villages. Bowai was also the target of an August 28, 2013, attack when the Seleka commander of Nana Bakasa, Captain Ousman, surrounded the village and detained 11 of its village chiefs, leaving only the Muslim village chief free. The detained village chiefs were tied up with their hands and feet behind their backs in a painful method of torture, which can lead to long-term paralysis of the arms and legs. Captain Ousman then demanded ransoms of 50,000 CFA (US$100) per village chief. The villagers paid the ransoms, fearing for the lives of the chiefs, who were released and fled the village.