Town in the Central African Republic braces for war between Christians and Muslims

Kaga Bandoro, Central African Republic — Heavily armed Muslim soldiers from the former Seleka rebel movement control this town, patrolling and manning checkpoints. On the outskirts, Christian militias have set up camp, determined to seize power.

“We’re worried that the two groups are about to attack each other,” said Daniel Gbele, a U.N. worker.

Tensions between the country’s Christian majority and Muslim minority have fueled violence in the capital, Bangui, and other areas in recent months. But here in the north, a parallel conflict over resources, wealth and territory is emerging. U.N. officials and human rights activists are concerned that Kaga Bandoro and other northern towns could soon become frontlines and humanitarian disaster zones, potentially dividing the poor but mineral-rich nation.

“This is our fear,” Aboud Dieng, the top U.N. humanitarian official for the Central African Republic, said during a recent visit to this town. “The Seleka say they will try to partition the country. This is a very important part of the country where they may be trying to establish a stronghold to control the rest of the country.”

Kaga Bandoro straddles the edge of the country’s remote northeast region, where Muslims are a majority and the Seleka rebel movement was born.

In March, Seleka rebels from the north seized power in a coup, installing their leader, Michel Djotodia, as the country’s first Muslim president. The rebels brutally targeted Christians, killing hundreds and forcing several hundred thousand from their homes. That triggered the creation of Christian militias known as the anti-Balaka — translated as “anti-machete” in the local Sango language — which attacked Muslim communities.

The balance of power shifted again last month when Djotodia resigned under pressure from regional powers. In disarray, the Seleka fighters began leaving the capital and other areas where they had gained control.

In recent weeks, the anti-Balaka Christian militias have taken over numerous towns, villages and neighborhoods. They have attacked Muslim communities and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes and the country. On Wednesday, Amnesty International said in a statement that the assaults on Muslims amounted to ethnic cleansing.

Now, the Seleka are streaming back to their ethnic areas and regrouping in the north, a region that contains lucrative deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals. Kaga Bandoro, about 150 miles north of Bangui, is near the border with Chad, whose government and military is sympathetic to the former rebels, according to human rights activists and diplomats. Key roads allow access to weapons and supplies.

“Up north is where most of the wealth of the country is,” Dieng said. “This is also a part of the country they came from before taking power in Bangui.”

The Seleka forces, which include mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, have engaged in fresh attacks as they have moved north, according to witnesses and human rights activists. In some cases, Chadian peacekeepers, who are among the 6,500 French and African soldiers authorized by the U.N. Security Council to help stabilize the country, have aided the Muslim fighters, according to Human Rights Watch.

“If the African Union is truly going to protect civilians in the Central African Republic, it needs to rein in the rogue activities of the Chadian peacekeeping troops,” Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The Chadian forces should not be enabling the Seleka to prey on civilians.”

Over the past few days, the anti-Balaka fighters have been arriving from different areas and camping outside Kaga Bandoro. They have issued an ultimatum to the Seleka to disarm, dismantle checkpoints and move outside the town. But the Seleka have refused to comply with their demands.

A team of religious and community leaders and U.N. officials is seeking to negotiate a peace between the two armed groups. But so far that has failed.

“The situation has deteriorated,” said Thomas Ndomete, the mayor of Kaga Bandoro and a member of the mediation team. “The anti-Balaka requested the Seleka to remove the checkpoints and disarm, but they haven’t done so. Now, the anti-Balaka are waiting for more troops. If the ultimatum is not met, the anti-Balaka will come out of the bush and attack. The population will be the first victims.”

Muslims and Christians in the town are living in fear.

In recent days, scores of Muslims have fled to Chad, including two of the town’s three imams. Seleka fighters are escorting trucks filled with Muslims to the border, less than 100 miles north of here.

“We are all leaving,” Abdallah Haji, 40, said as he stood next to a truck packed with Muslims in the market. “The anti-Balaka is outside the town. The Christians say they don’t want the Muslims to stay.”

His wife, mother and three children left days ago. His father, he said, was killed recently by an anti-Balaka fighter.

In a church compound in the town, some Christians said the anti-Balaka told them to seek refuge there because of an impending attack. Others said Seleka fighters had threatened them.

“The Seleka told us that once they had evacuated all the Muslims, they were going to come and kill us all and burn down our houses before they left for Chad,” said Modeste Ndomete, 35, a farmer.

Caleb Baganga, 45, another farmer, worried that the anti-Balaka would not be able to protect them.

“We are convinced that the Seleka are going to act soon,” he said. “If they attack us suddenly, when will the anti-Balaka come? Their camp is five kilometers away.”

He said he had no faith in the Chadian peacekeepers in the town.

“They don’t intervene,” Baganga said.

That night, as they have done every night for the past two weeks, the Christians planned to sleep out in the open, or in the nearby bush.

“We are worried that the Seleka will burn down our houses with our children sleeping inside,” said Sylvain Nza, 32, a farmer.