Deadly rebel attack on church in Central African Republic
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At least 30 are feared dead after Muslim rebels stormed a Catholic Church compound in the capital of the Central African Republic on Wednesday, launching grenades and spraying civilians with gunfire, witnesses said.
The attack on the compound at the Notre-Dame de Fatima church, where thousands of civilians had sought refuge from the violence ravaging Bangui’s streets, is the largest and most brazen blamed on Muslim fighters since their Seleka coalition was ousted from power nearly five months ago.
It is rare for rebels to launch an attack on a house of worship, as Catholic churches have served as sanctuaries for both Christian and Muslim civilians since the Central African Republic erupted into sectarian bloodshed in December.
“We were in the church when were heard the shooting outside,” the Rev. Freddy Mboula told The Associated Press. “There were screams and after 30 minutes of gunfire there were bodies everywhere.”
Fears of reprisals
There were conflicting reports of how many were killed, and fighting in the area also prohibited observers from independently confirming the toll. Associated Press journalists counted five bodies brought to area hospitals and the toll remained unclear as night fell in Bangui.
Mboula, however, estimated that about 30 people were killed in the attack, including a priest.
Archbishop Dieudonne Mzapalainga told AFP that the priest killed was 76-year-old Paul-Emile Nzale.
"One can only feel sadness about these deaths. For several days there have been clashes in the this neighbourhood," Mzapalainga added.
There are concerns that this latest bloodshed could spark reprisal attacks on the city’s few remaining Muslims, most of whom fled the city in a mass exodus earlier this year that the UN has described as ethnic cleansing.
In the hours that followed, Christian militia fighters began putting up road blockades around Bangui and the AFP reported continued gunfire throughout the night.
A country in crisis
A political crisis took on inter-religious dimensions after a brutal Muslim rebel regime seized power by force in March 2013. Muslim civilians in were largely spared in the ensuing violence, while the rebels looted, raped and killed Christians.
The regime fostered a growing hatred towards Muslims in the Christian majority. Some formed vigilante "anti-balaka" groups, unleashing a wave of tit-for-tat killings.
Most of the sectarian violence in Bangui since January when the rebels were forced from power has involved Christian militia fighters targeting Muslims. Previous attacks have launched retaliatory violence in the capital of Bangui.
Since the ouster of the Muslim rebels, a transitional government led by interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has been tasked with organising elections no later than February 2015. But many observers doubt such a vote can be held because of the ongoing violence, and because rebels destroyed scores of voting lists in the towns they ransacked across the country.
The crisis in Central African Republic has forced nearly 1 million people from their homes. Churches are not the only sanctuary, at one point nearly 100,000 refugees sought shelter in the grounds of Bangui airport, which has been guarded by French and now other European peacekeepers.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)