By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR, July 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Spiralling violence between armed factions in Central African Republic could plunge the country back into a large-scale humanitarian crisis four years after conflict first erupted, the United Nations' aid chief and agencies said on Tuesday.
A surge in fighting between militias in several hotspots has uprooted more than 100,000 people since April, in the worst spell of displacement since the peak of the conflict in 2014, say aid groups including the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
More than 1 million people are displaced - about half are living as refugees in neighbouring countries - and nearly one in two people - at least 2.2 million - need aid, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
"It is tragic to see so many people displaced by mindless conflict and brutal atrocities ... the country is experiencing a deteriorating cycle of violence," the U.N. humanitarian chief, Stephen O'Brien, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It has the worst level of humanitarian needs per capita," O'Brien added by phone from Bangui, calling on donors to boost support to avert the risk of a repeat of the "devastating large-scale crisis that gripped the country only four years ago".
The country's humanitarian response plan for 2017 has been less than quarter funded - $118 million of a requested $497 million - the U.N.'s Financial Tracking Service (FTS) shows.
Central African Republic has been plagued by conflict since March 2013, when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power, triggering reprisals by Christian "anti-balaka" militias.
The Seleka and other groups have since splintered, prompting further violence despite the election in March 2016 of President Faustin-Archange Touadera, which raised hopes of reconciliation.
Thirteen of the 14 armed groups along with representatives from the government signed a peace deal last month, yet as many as 100 people were killed in the town of Bria, northeast of the capital Bangui, in fighting between factions the very next day.
Fighting has since continued and intensified in towns such as Bangassou and Zemio, where militants last week shot and killed a baby in a hospital, forcing aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to temporarily suspend its operations there.
Children are being increasingly targeted in the violence - ending up victims of murder, abduction, rape and recruitment into armed groups, said the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF).
"The peace agreement brought hope, but this hope has been shattered by the increase in violence and new displacement during the last weeks," said Eric Batonon, NRC country head.
"We need to wake up to the fact that the Central African Republic is again spiralling towards a devastating crisis."
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; 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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