The self-proclaimed leader of the Central African Republic's Christian-dominated vigilantes warned President Catherine Samba-Panza on Thursday against any crackdown against his group.
"Declaring war on the anti-balaka amounts to declaring war on the Central African population," Richard Bejouane told hundreds of militiamen gathered in an anti-balaka stronghold in the north of the capital Bangui.
The anti-balaka ("anti-machete" in the local Sango language) militias were initially self-defence groups formed in response to abuses committed by rogue ex-rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka coalition that seized power in March 2013.
With the remnants of Seleka on the back foot since France deployed 1,600 soldiers two months ago, most of the ongoing violence is now blamed on the anti-balaka's attacks.
Samba-Panza, a Christian who took over as interim president last month from ex-Seleka boss Michel Djotodia, said on Wednesday her administration was "going to go to war against the anti-balaka" if they didn’t stop committing crimes against Muslims.
"The anti-balaka have lost their sense of mission. They are now the ones who kill, who pillage, who are violent," she said.
“The president is right to declare war against these bandits,” local health worker Arthur Bissiko told AFP. “Everyone wants peace after all that the ex-Seleka put the people through.”
"The anti-balaka militias are increasingly organised and using language that suggests their intent is to eliminate Muslim residents" from the country, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
The French contingent and more than 5,000 African Union peacekeepers have been unable to stem a looting pandemic and a cycle of revenge attacks.
Bejouane claimed that anti-balaka ranks numbered 52,000, including 12,000 in the capital.
Earlier this week, Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, the anti-balaka’s self-proclaimed “political coordinator,” claimed their number was closer to 70,000, with more than half of them in Bangui.
But military sources dismissed these numbers as “bizarre”, and said they doubted the very existence of a unified command.
Meanwhile, General Francisco Soriano, who has been heading up France's Sangaris operation in the Central African Republic, cast doubt on Bejouane's legitimacy as a leader.
"Who are the anti-balaka? Who is their boss? What is their political message? What is their chain of command?" he said on Monday.
"Nobody knows anything. It's a network we're unable to put a face on," Soriano said, describing them as "the principal enemies of peace", who should be treated as "bandits".
The first anti-balaka vigilantes emerged in August 2013 near Bossangoa, Djotodia's home region around 250 kilometres (150 miles) north of Bangui.
Their equipment was at first very rudimentary -- bows and arrows, home-made hunting rifles, machetes and amulets for "protection".
They were soon joined by forces loyal to ousted president Francois Bozize armed with assault rifles, mortars and rocket-launchers.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
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Date created : 2014-02-13