By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR, March 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Armed groups and even United Nations peacekeepers have occupied schools or set up bases nearby in the Central African Republic, preventing countless pupils across the conflict-torn country from receiving an education, a rights group said on Thursday.
Central African Republic has been beset by violence between mainly Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian anti-balaka militias since the rebels ousted the then president in early 2013.
Both groups have occupied, looted and damaged schools during the conflict, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Yet in two cases, one as recently as January this year, the U.N. peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) also used schools as bases - defying the mission's own directive that its peacekeepers must "not use schools for any purpose," HRW said in a report published on Thursday.
"These occupations by MINUSCA sends out a contradictory message given that they have been stepping up efforts to clear out schools occupied by armed groups," Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at HRW, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
MINUSCA said its peacekeepers briefly occupied two schools in late 2016 and early this year in the west and centre of the country while carrying out operations to protect civilians.
"On both occasions, once the leadership knew about the peacekeepers' presence, instructions were given for the immediate vacation of those places (schools)," MINUSCA spokesman, Vladimir Monteiro, said in response to the HRW report.
Around a fifth of schools across the country are closed, and one in three children are not in class, with displacement, a lack of teachers, and insecurity to blame, U.N agencies say.
While MINUSCA has made progress in clearing schools by militias, fighters sometimes stay near school grounds, leaving teachers and pupils too afraid to return, according to HRW.
The use of schools as bases by armed groups could ramp up in the coming months as militants look for shelter during the rainy season, Mudge said.
"Children have lost years of education in many parts of the country because armed groups have failed to treat schools as places of learning and sanctuary," he added. "If more is not done, we may be looking at the potential of a lost generation."
Violent clashes are spreading in Central African Republic among dozens of armed factions despite successful polls that elected a new government last year, raising hopes for stability after a wave of ethnic cleansing and the nation's de facto partition into a Muslim northeast and Christian southwest.
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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