(Photo: Courtesy of the Red Cross)
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — About 2,000 people have sought refuge in a Catholic mission in the volatile northwest of Central African Republic after heavy fighting broke out in the area, aid officials said Wednesday.
The latest exodus came as a top Catholic church official in the region warned that the violence has taken on a "dangerous Muslim-Christian sectarian character that the country has never experienced."
Petula Malo, the head of communications for Caritas in the country, said Wednesday that her organization had been unable to reach local staff in Bouca after phone lines there went down amid violence in the area. There was no immediate casualty toll available from the fighting, she said.
The town of Bouca, about 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of the capital, is normally home to less than 1,000 residents. Heavy fighting erupted Tuesday near the community between the Muslim Seleka rebels who have carried out attacks and massacres throughout the northwest in recent months and members of Christian self-defense militias that have arisen amid the violence.
The United Nations has now received reports of some 2,000 people sheltering at the Catholic mission in Bouca, said Amy Martin, head of the United Nations humanitarian mission in Central African Republic.
The exodus came as Bishop Nestor-Desire Nongo Aziagbia from nearby Bossangoa testified before a United States Congressional subcommittee Tuesday in Washington about the crisis. Some 35,000 people are currently sheltered at his diocesan compound, 62 miles (100 kilometers) west of Bouca, he said.
"Seleka's violent attacks have targeted Christian homes, schools and places of worship while sparing local Muslim communities and mosques, often only a short distance away," he said. "Christian communities have now begun to set up self-defense militia to fight back. Sadly, there are reports that they are attacking Muslim communities in retribution."
One of the world's poorest countries with a long history of chaos and coups, Central African Republic has been in turmoil since a coalition of rebel groups joined forces and overthrew the president in March and put their leader in charge. Since seizing power, the Seleka rebels and their allies from neighboring Chad and Sudan have plunged the country into a state of near-anarchy. They have been accused by human rights groups of committing scores of atrocities, of widespread looting, killings, rapes and conscription of child soldiers.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on the U.N. Security Council to authorize international support to an existing African Union-led peace operation in Central African Republic and to permit emergency intervention from U.N. forces if needed. So far, the African Union force has about 2,590 personnel on the ground, the majority in the capital, Bangui.
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