BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Clashes in Central African Republic involving fighters believed to be loyal to ousted President Francois Bozize killed dozens of people and displaced tens of thousands over the weekend, officials said Monday.
The fighting occurred in the west of the country, a region that in recent months has been the site of multiple massacres allegedly carried out by the Seleka coalition of fighters who toppled Bozize in March. Seleka leader Michel Djotodia was sworn in as president last month and vowed to return the country to democracy by organizing elections within 18 months.
Guy Simplice Kodegue, a presidential spokesman, said 60 people had been killed in the latest fighting, which he said had been initiated by pro-Bozize fighters. He said a column of army soldiers supported by Seleka fighters had been dispatched to the region from Bangui, the capital, to stop the assailants, whom he accused of abusing civilians in the town of Bossangoa near Bozize's home village.
"The international community should keep a watchful eye on what is happening in this country, as we have just made a policy shift to pave the way for elections," he said.
Phone coverage is sparse in the region, located nearly 400 kilometers (248.56 miles) from Bangui. Orongaye Rigobert, a community leader in Bossangoa, said the pro-Bozize fighters had destroyed bridges used to access the town from Bangui in a bid to halt the army's advance.
He said about 30 people had been killed in Bossangoa, most of them civilians. Kodegue, the presidential spokesman, accused the assailants of targeting Muslim civilians, though Rigobert said the casualties may have included Christians as well.
Seleka is composed primarily of fighters from the country's predominantly Muslim north, and some observers have said the group only targets Christian villages. Because Djotodia and many of his supporters are Muslim while Bozize and many of his supporters are Christian, the politics fall along religious fault lines.
The clashes in Bossangoa prompted about 30,000 residents — around 80 percent of the town's population — to flee into the forest, said Amy Martin, head of the United Nations humanitarian mission in Central African Republic.
She said the clashes also coincided with violence in two other locations in the west. Fighting in the nearby town of Bouca on Monday morning prompted residents to flee, she said. It was not clear what sparked violence in that town. The northwest town of Paoua, meanwhile, had received thousands of people fleeing clashes between self-defense groups and Seleka in surrounding areas. Around 3,000 displaced people had been registered in Paoua, according to Martin.
Last week the U.N. refugee agency said seven villages near Paoua were burned to the ground. Melissa Fleming, the agency's chief spokesperson, said the north appeared to have descended into lawlessness.
"We are, in general, increasingly worried about the civilians caught in the middle of the fighting and who are at the mercy of anyone with a gun," she said.
Martin, the U.N. humanitarian official, noted that the fighters squaring off against Seleka had not identified themselves, making it impossible to establish their origins and motivation. But she said it appeared that groups that had previously been disarmed were involved in the fighting.
Aid groups have been warning for months that Central African Republic is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe if the security situation doesn't improve.
Corey-Boulet reported from Dakar, Senegal.