DAKAR, March 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Clashes
between militias near the Central African Republic town of
Bambari could soon escalate into full-blown conflict, forcing
tens of thousands of people from their homes and triggering a
humanitarian 'catastrophe', aid agencies said on Friday.
Central African Republic has been plagued by conflict since
March 2013, when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power,
triggering reprisals by Christian "anti-balaka" militias.
Yet fighting has flared in recent months around Bambari, in
the centre of the country, between two rebel groups formerly
belonging to the Seleka alliance that have fallen out in a fight
for territory and control of illicit tax revenues.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) said last week it
stopped fighters from carrying out an attack in Bambari, but aid
agencies fear imminent conflict in a town home to 200,000 people
- a quarter of whom have already been uprooted by violence.
"There has been a shift from religious to ethnic violence,
and the fighting has worsened around Bambari since November,"
Jerome Kouachi, emergency specialist at the U.N. children's
agency (UNICEF) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"If there is full-blown conflict in Bambari, it will lead to
mass displacement ... it would be a catastrophe," he added.
Clashes between the two rebel groups, the Popular Front for
the Renaissance of Central African Republic (FPRC) and the Union
for Peace in Central African Republic (UPC), have also hindered
the delivery of humanitarian relief, agencies say.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said
providing health care around Bambari was challenging due to the
displacement, and that malaria was a major health concern with
so many people living in camps or sleeping in the bush.
More than two thirds of the country's health facilities have
been damaged or destroyed by the violence since 2013, MSF says.
Aid agencies are stretched thin across the Central African
Republic, with violence between armed groups also plaguing Kaga
Bandoro in the north, and Ouham-Pendé in the northwest.
Some 420,000 people have been uprooted within the country,
nearly 500,000 have fled to neighbouring countries, and more
than 2.2 million, around half the population, need aid, said the
U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
"It is hard to coordinate the humanitarian response given
the conflict across country," said OCHA head of office Joseph
Inganji. "The aid community is prepared, but with the situation
so volatile, it is difficult to know when violence will erupt."
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights,
trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.