Fear reigns in CAR's capital Bangui

2012-12-31 12:13

Bangui - Nightfall in Bangui's normally bustling streets brings an eery quiet to the capital of the Central African Republic, where authorities have enacted a curfew ahead of a possible rebel move on the city.

Men carrying machetes and arrows patrol the deserted roads to ward off would-be looters. Many in the impoverished city of almost a million residents are afraid.

"It was so quiet under the curfew that I almost couldn't sleep," said one resident, who described a "scary quiet" after authorities on Saturday implemented the 19:00 to 05:00 stay-in restriction.

Rebels from a coalition known as Seleka, who took up arms on 10 December near the border with Chad and have met little resistance from government troops, on Sunday warned they could enter Bangui.

After Saturday's curfew announcement, shops, restaurants and bars quickly shut and traffic on the city's dusty roads all but disappeared.

The silence seemed magnified by the darkness in the city, where a power cut lasted several hours.

In the town centre, generators buzzed as groups of machete-carrying guards chatted. Sometimes, one of them would scrape his blade on the sidewalk - making a menacing sound, even though the men did not seem aggressive.

Self-defence groups

The situation is different in outlying neighbourhoods, where authorities have asked groups of young men to put up roadside barriers to stave off any rebel advance.

But some residents grumbled these "self-defence" groups were extorting locals.

"They gave these layabouts machetes. They control everyone and ask for money for coffee. Sometimes, they take all your money," said a resident in the northern neighbourhood.

These areas are strongholds of President Francois Bozize, and at the edge of the ever-shrinking area held by loyalist troops. The Central African Republic's army has offered scant resistance to rebels and is underpaid, poorly organised and ill-equipped.

Religious discrimination

The Central African Republic is predominantly Christian and many here say the rebels are largely Muslim, leading to discrimination against the religious group.

"I'm really scared. I am a Muslim, and I think twice before going out," the resident said.

The situation is similar in the eastern neighbourhood of Kassai.

"They checked me, even though they know me," a taxi driver said. "We're worried, they are armed with machetes and arrows."

Interior Minister Jose Binoua said the groups were working to help police identify "anyone who seems suspicious", but stressed any racketeering or aggression would be sanctioned.

Still, witnesses speak of unlawful arrests and disappearances, especially targeting Muslims.

Opposition leader and former prime minister Martin Ziguele on Sunday denounced these practices and the "search for scapegoats".

"We have no need for extra forces or special organisations to help the security situation," he said.

Rebel attack possibilities

Seleka coalition spokesperson Eric Massi, who has not ruled out attacking the capital, said he is worried about the security situation here and about suspected sympathisers being harassed.

Many residents are terrified of the possibility of a rebel attack.

"I'm scared. If the rebels come, what are we going to do for food?" said Mary, a pregnant street vendor.

Still, Gabin, a resident of a northern neighbourhood, said he supported the curfew as rebels moved to within 160km of the capital.

"The government is right. The curfew will allow them to keep intruders in check," he said.