More than 200,000 people have fled the fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR) since violence broke out in an election result in December, the United States Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said, with almost half crossing the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The CAR army, backed by US, Russian and Rwandan troops, fought rebels to overthrow a December 27 vote that declared President Faustin-Archange Touadera the winner.
“Refugees told UNHCR that they fled in a panic when they heard gunfire and left their belongings,” spokesman Boris Cheshirkov told journalists in Geneva on Friday.
The nation of almost five million people – larger than mainland France, Belgium and Luxembourg combined – and rich in diamonds, wood and gold, has struggled to find stability since the uprising of former President Francois Bozize in 2013.
The current fighting between a coalition of militias on the one hand and the national army and its supporters on the other was sparked by a decision by the Constitutional Court to suspend Bozize’s candidacy in the presidential elections on December 27th.
Former Prime Minister Martin Ziguele, who finished third in the December 27 elections, said on Friday that there is fighting across the country every day to prevent movement between cities and forcing more people to flee.
“I can’t leave Bangui and travel 90 km without a heavily armed army escort. Then imagine the population. Add the curfew and the state of emergency, it’s really an apocalyptic situation,” Ziguele told Reuters over the phone.
In a statement on Friday, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, a regional body made up of 12 member states, called for a ceasefire and called on armed groups to “break away from the encirclement of Bangui” and allow people and goods to move freely.
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The panel will also call on the United Nations Security Council to lift an arms embargo against the Central African Republic that has restricted the flow of arms to the army since 2013.
Approximately 92,000 refugees have reached the Democratic Republic of the Congo and more than 13,000 have entered Cameroon, Chad and the Republic of the Congo – the rest have been displaced within the Central African Republic, the UNHCR said.
Ongoing attacks have hampered access to humanitarian supplies, the main road for supplies had to be closed within the country, and many are now facing “dire conditions,” said UNHCR’s Cheshirkov.
Some of the displaced are so desperate that they agreed to have sex in exchange for food, he added. While malaria, respiratory infections, and diarrhea have become common.