Fighting rages in CAR capital

2013-12-25 17:25
Children pass the time inside a chapel serving as shelter in Bangui, CAR. (Rebecca Blackwell, AP)

Children pass the time inside a chapel serving as shelter in Bangui, CAR. (Rebecca Blackwell, AP)

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Bangui - Fresh exchanges of gunfire rattled the Central African Republic's capital Bangui on Wednesday, but a brief respite from the violence earlier allowed residents and troops to celebrate Christmas, bringing some festive cheer to the strife-torn nation.

The main celebratory event in this overwhelmingly Christian-majority country was a moving Christmas Eve mass at the imposing red-brick cathedral in Bangui.

The ceremony was brought forward to Tuesday afternoon due to a dusk-to-dawn curfew in place after violence that has claimed about 1 000 lives since 5 December, according to Amnesty International.

Soldiers guarded the 1930s building set against the stunning backdrop of a lush hillock studded with towering equatorial trees.

"We must speak out freely and say in one voice 'This should never happen again,'" said Bangui's much admired Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga in a long and emotional sermon.

"There is no peace without justice," he told the congregation, addressing them in French and the national language Sango.

"Let us become the harbingers of justice and we will become peacemakers."

The faithful interrupted the sermon several times with sustained clapping and some voiced hope that peace was near at hand.

Sectarian violence

But the reality on the ground hit home as one stepped out of the cathedral, ringed by Kalashnikov-wielding men.

The sectarian violence that has gripped the traditionally unstable and impoverished nation has pitted Muslims against Christians following a rebel-led coup that toppled president Francois Bozize.

The former rebels who launched attacks against the government of coup leader Michel Djotodia, a Muslim, are identified with Muslims and are targeted by Christian vigilante groups known as the anti-balaka (anti-machete).

"I work, but I pray too," said a soldier, who carefully followed the Archbishop's speech, relayed on loudspeakers outside the cathedral.

"They said that Central Africa has been forgotten by God, but God does not forget anyone here like in any other place," he said, cradling his Kalashnikov.

Vigilantes

Inside the church, a worshipper said the vigilantes were not true Christians.

"We are a religion of peace, not of war," he whispered. "The anti-balaka are not Christian, they are not one of us."

A day earlier, the vigilantes had brutally lynched two Muslims in Bangui, hacking off their limbs with machetes.

The Christmas spirit also buoyed the ranks of French soldiers, deployed in the former colony to support an African peacekeeping force to help restore security.

Out on a night patrol in the deserted capital, the soldiers feted Christmas by exchanging gifts, jokes and good-natured banter.

"Merry Christmas to the pack," Lieutenant Laujac told his men. Others excitedly opened their presents ranging from sweets to a tin of cassoulet.

In keeping with the festive spirit, one of the vehicles in the convoy had a plastic Christmas tree, illuminated with tiny lights.

"It's not like back home," a soldier joked.

But the Christmas break for the patrol just lasted a few minutes. Presents exchanged, cigarettes smoked and once again they were on their way.

There are 1 600 French soldiers deployed in the country. The major component of the African forces come from neighbouring Chad.

Many Christians accuse the Chadian government of being allied to the Seleka rebel group which propelled Djotodia to power, while Muslims allege that French forces are siding with Christian militia groups.

Christmas Eve night saw isolated and sporadic bursts of gunfire and automatic weapons fire and explosions were heard Wednesday in the PK12 neighbourhood in northern Bangui.

Pope Francis, in his first Christmas Day address at the Vatican, pleaded for peace in the Central African Republic, a country he said was "often forgotten and overlooked".

Read more on:    central african republic  |  central africa
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