Thousands flee to Central African Republic airport to escape ex-rebels

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 28, 2013 12:39 PM

By Paul-Marin Ngoupana

BANGUI (Reuters) - Thousands of civilians have fled to the Central African Republic's main international airport to escape marauding former rebel fighters and have occupied the tarmac, blocking some flights from landing, witnesses and officials said.

Residents of the Boeing quarter adjacent to the capital's M'poko airport began fleeing their homes on Tuesday night after Seleka fighters starting shooting up their neighborhood.

The Central African Republic has descended into chaos since the rebels swept into Bangui in March, toppling President Francois Bozize and unleashing a wave of violence that new leader Michel Djotodia has failed to control.

"There are thousands of people in the airport and on the tarmac since last night after the Seleka raid," said a senior officer with a Central African regional peacekeeping mission based at the airport.

"They came here because they are afraid," he said. The peacekeepers were forced to intervene to stop Seleka fighters from entering, he said.

Seleka, a grouping of five rebel movements that Djotodia used to lead, has repeatedly raided rural villages and Bangui neighborhoods under the pretext of searching for weapons caches and armed Bozize loyalists.

But human rights groups say they are responsible for widespread looting, torture and summary executions.

French President Francois Hollande called on the U.N. Security Council and the African Union on Tuesday to stabilize the situation in the Central African Republic, warning it was at risk of going the way of Somalia.

Residents of the Boeing neighborhood said what started as an evacuation had become a protest against the state of lawlessness.

"Our presence here at the airport has one goal - to get the world's attention. Because we are fed up with these Seleka," said Antoine Gazama.

"We won't leave this airport until Djotodia can ensure our daily security and that of our children against these bloodthirsty Selekas," said Jocelyne Yetimbi, who fled to the airport with her four children.

Speaking on state radio on Wednesday, new security and public order minister Josue Binoua said the occupation of the airport had kept several flights, including one run by Morocco's national carrier Royal Air Maroc, from landing.

He said the situation had forced Djotodia to call an emergency meeting during which the government decided to ban Seleka from entering Bangui neighborhoods.

"Only the forces of order, notably the police and gendarmes, are authorized to ensure and reestablish order in the country and particularly in the city of Bangui," Binoua said.

Senior U.N. officials warned earlier this month that the country was on the brink of collapse and the crisis was threatening to spread beyond its borders.

They called for the Security Council to fund and support an African Union peacekeeping force.

(Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)