DOUALA, Cameroon (AP) — A delegation from Central African Republic is trying to persuade soldiers from the national army to return home after they fled to neighboring Cameroon in the aftermath of a rebel takeover more than four months ago.
The call comes as human rights groups describe a rapidly deteriorating security situation across largely anarchic Central African Republic, with accounts of rebels committing massacres and setting homes ablaze. Scores of atrocities have been blamed on the Seleka rebel fighters who overthrew President Francois Bozize.
Hundreds of soldiers from the national army known as FACA are believed to be among the 3,000 refugees from Central African Republic still in Cameroon. But so far those approached about returning home say they still fear for their safety.
"Those of us considered Bozize loyalists are being hunted down by the Bangui regime. We have been declared 'wanted' and personally, I'm not ready to go back," Djodiar Kato, a spokesman for the soldiers, said Wednesday. "We don't have sufficient guarantees that we will not be dragged to court to face manslaughter charges once we return."
Idriss Salao, leader of the Central African Republic delegation to Cameroon this week, insisted he came with a message of peace and reconciliation. Some of the soldiers in exile have continued to receive their monthly salaries and some have since been promoted to higher ranks, he added.
"We came to inform our brethren that the security situation back home is being returned to normal. We would love for all sons and daughters of the CAR to return home so that together, we can rebuild a new CAR," Salao told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Despite his assertion, the United Nations and others have warned of the growing lawlessness in Central African Republic, which also neighbors some of the most volatile countries on the continent. A panel of U.N. experts said earlier this week the rule of law is "almost non-existent" now in Central African Republic. Their findings cited dozens of reported cases of civilian killings along with reports of army soldiers who had been abducted by armed rebels.
Cameroon's Secretary of State in charge of War Veterans, Koumpa Issa, said no one will be forced to go back and "Cameroon will continue playing its role as a nation of hospitality." Back in April, though, Cameroon's defense minister had sought to disarm the exiled soldiers and said "they will have to go back at some point in time."
The hesitant soldiers argued that words were not enough to persuade them at this point.
"I found myself in Cameroon because I was one of the officers who accompanied President Bozize here when he was overthrown," said Col. Rufus Baro. "My house was ransacked several times and I knew I was going to be killed if I stayed there."
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.