Top pastor escapes death amidst renewed violence in CAR

One of the top three religious leaders in the Central African Republic, who has won global recognition for his efforts to end the conflict, has escaped an assassination attempt, as the capital, Bangui, has seen a renewed wave of violence.

Coming just a few weeks before a planned referendum and subsequent October elections aimed at putting an end to the transitional government, this violence has now caused the interim President to cancel the elections.

The President of CAR’s Evangelical Alliance, Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, was targeted in an attack apparently triggered by the death of a young Muslim motorbike taxi driver. His body was found in the predominantly Christian 5th district on Saturday, 26 September, then taken to a mosque in the 3rd district, known also as Km5 – formerly considered by many as a stronghold of Séléka rebels, and a "no-go zone" for all non-Muslims.

Who killed the young taxi-driver and why are still unknown.

At about 9am on Saturday, angry Muslim youths left the 3rd district and poured into the 5th district, brandishing automatic weapons, machetes, and raiding and destroying properties.

They entered the Elim Church compound, where Rev. Guerekoyame-Gbangou’s house is located, asking for him.

"I left the compound at about 8.30. But some 30 minutes later, a group of young Muslims arrived at my house," Rev. Guerekoyame-Gbangou told World Watch Monitor.

"The assailants asked for ‘pastor Nicolas, who is pro-peace … but who always attacks us’. But they learned that I had already left the house.

"They then told my family to leave the property. One of the assailants brandished a knife and threated to kill my older son, but another assailant prevented him from doing it."

The angry mob then looted all valuable items, before setting fire to the house. The assailants also ransacked other buildings in the compound, setting fire to them, and shooting randomly.

"Unfortunately they killed two people before leaving the compound", said Rev. Guerekoyame-Gbangou. "The victims, who had their throats cut, were displaced people who had sought refuge within our compound."

Rev. Guerekoyame-Gbangou’s family was unharmed and has moved to an undisclosed safe place.

Three dramatic days

CAR had experienced religious and ethnic unrest between mainly Muslim Séléka rebels and mainly animist "anti-balaka" militia for more than two years since Séléka seized power in March 2013. It was believed that the country was recovering after reconciliation efforts by the top Muslim and Christian clerics, which had led to them receiving a peace award in August.

The violence, the worst the capital has experienced this year, has dashed Bangui’s fragile stability.

Early on Saturday afternoon, "anti-balaka" ("anti-machete") militias started fighting back, leading to their deadly clashes with Muslim armed groups and ex- Séléka rebels. Witnesses reported people slaughtered or shot at close range, corpses littering the ground or thrown into wells. Places of worship and homes were looted and burned.

The Catholic Saint Michel church was set ablaze, while Saint Mathias Parish church was ransacked and desecrated.

A mosque and a Muslim radio headquarters were also attacked, as well as several international humanitarian organisations’ offices, whose relief stock and materials were looted.

The violence continued despite a night curfew imposed by the authorities; the tension was still high with sporadic gun and weapon detonations heard on Tuesday. The violence caused President Samba-Panza to leave the UN General Assembly to rush home.

At least 40 people have lost their lives since Saturday, and nearly 30,000 people were forced to flee, the UN said on Tuesday. But the death toll could be much higher, local sources told World Watch Monitor, as more bodies may be discovered, and hundreds are feared to be injured.

Rule of law was dealt a further blow when some 500 inmates broke out of the central prison in Bangui. Most of them are "anti-balaka", according to the BBC.

Appeals for restraint

While deploring this new wave of violence, Rev. Guerekoyame-Gbangou said that the attack which targeted him will not undermine his commitment to peace in CAR.

"Any commitment has a price. As a pastor and ambassador of peace, I cannot focus on my interests as a person, or my family," he said.

"The interest of the Central African people is the most important, provided that we are successful in our mission to reconcile the Central Africans and bring peace."

The other two members of the interfaith platform – the Archbishop of Bangui, Msgr. Dieudonné Nzapalainga and Imam Omar Kobine Layama, the President of the Islamic Community of Central Africa – have also appealed for calm and restraint.

In addition to the violence, hundreds of people demonstrated to express their discontent against the UN and French troops, accused of inertia over armed groups – responsible, the demonstrators said, for the violence.

Rev. Guerekoyame-Gbangou said an urgent priority is to disarm the militias and to restore the national armed forces, to enable them to play their task of protecting the country from inter-communal violence.