UPDATES with final 5 paragraphs of comment on the way forward)
DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The death toll in Central African Republic may be higher than initial estimates because many Muslim victims were never taken to state hospitals and families buried their dead at home because of security fears, aid workers say.
Medical charity MSF said on Wednesday that a survey of nearly 33,000 Central African refugees in neighbouring Chad had shown 8 percent of those questioned had lost at least one member of their family.
The refugees reported 2,599 deaths between November 2013 and April 2014, the report said. One-third of the 3,449 families questioned had lost at least one member, while a quarter had lost at least two.
The United Nations says that around 1 million people have been forced to abandon their homes in search of security - nearly a quarter of the population. Some 390,000 people have fled Central African Republic as refugees.
Previous estimates of the death toll in the landlocked former French colony, based on the number of bodies collected by Red Cross workers, had been in the region of 1,000 to 2,000, mostly during a flare-up in fighting in December and January.
“Nobody really knows the death toll in CAR, but now at last we have some figures," said Yann Lelevrier, MSF regional operational representative. "The report raises the point that even if we have had a lot of progress, the violence is still worrying.”
Giovanni Cassani, head of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Central African Republic, said many people who had lost family members had simply buried them near their homes because of security fears.
“Others in the Muslim community take their dead straight to the mosque where they are read prayers by the imam and then buried nearby. The Red Cross and state hospitals will have no record of them,” Cassani said.
Gaston Mackouzangba, spokesman for Central African Republic's transitional government, said the security situation in the capital Bangui had improved but violence in the provinces was continuing, particularly around the central town of Bambari.
Violence in Central African Republic rose sharply after the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted the government of President Francois Bozize in March 2013 and Seleka leader Djotodia declared himself president of the majority Christian country.
Seleka's time in power was marked by a string of rights abuses, which spawned a Christian militia known as the 'anti-balaka'.
Djotodia stepped down in January under intense international pressure and violence has continued under the weak interim government despite the presence of about 6,000 African Union peacekeepers and 2,000 French troops.
Crisis Group director for CAR Thierry Vircoulon said one problem was that there were no clear leaders of the armed groups, another was that the international community had diverging views about the solution for CAR.
"… the international community does not yet have a vision for the stabilisation of the CAR crisis. Two years after the start of this crisis, the lack of brainstorming at the international level is striking," he said.
Cassani said the aim at present was simply to get the two communities to live side by side.
“During the World Cup, IOM distributed television sets to 10 community spots in Bangui, including near the Central Mosque, and we found that people came together to watch the matches, regardless of religion. On average 400 people showed up per location,” he said.
“The IOM cash-for-work programme employs thousands of people around the capital to clean the markets, or the drains, before the rainy season. People are working together, regardless of religious affiliation,” he added.
(Editing by Tim Pearce; firstname.lastname@example.org)
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