Central African Republic rebels seize Bangassou, bishop reports

The camp for internally displaced persons at St Peter Claver in Bangassou CAR Oct 21 2017 Credit UN Photo Eskinder Debebe The camp for internally displaced persons at St Peter Claver Cathedral in Bangassou, CAR, Oct. 21, 2017. | UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

The Central African Republic city of Bangassou has been captured by rebels aligned with an ex-president, Bishop Juan José Aguirre Muñoz of Bangassou has reported as he appealed for prayers.

"Bangassou has fallen into the hands of the rebels, many of whom are mercenaries and people from Niger," Bishop Aguirre Muñoz told Fides news agency, in a Jan. 4 report.

He described the Jan. 3 capture of the diamond mining town.

"The morning was hectic. Heavy artillery from five in the morning with about thirty dead and wounded," he said. Government soldiers fled Bangassou after resisting the rebel offensive for several hours.

Bangassou is on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some 35,000 people live there.

Amid the violence instigated by the armed rebels, the Spanish-born Bishop Aguirre Muñoz has helped secure refuge for some of the children caught up in the chaos.

"You look them in the eye and they know nothing about rebels, mercenaries, struggles for power ... They only hear the gunshots and explosions. And they are very frightened," said the 66-year-old bishop, a member of the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus.

"There are many children injured by stray bullets, children who are trying to flee to Congo to escape the violence," the bishop said.

The Jan. 3 attack on Bangassou came a day after another assault on Damara, the hometown of the incumbent president, Faustin-Archange Touadera, who was declared the winner of the Dec. 27 elections. Damara is about 50 miles north of the capital.

The presidential elections had been held amid insecurity and political tensions.

Provisional results announced by the Central African Republic's electoral commission Jan. 4 show that Touadera secured over 53 percent of the votes.

Matthias Morouba, the president of the country's electoral commission, declared Touadera the winner, given that he received an absolute majority in the election's first round, Reuters reports.

The country's constitutional court had previously rejected the presidential candidacy of former president François Bozizé, who had wanted to challenge President Touadera. Bozizé is an ally of the rebels.

On Dec. 19, a coalition of armed rebel groups under the auspices of a group called the Coalition of Patriots for Change launched an offensive, intending to march on the national capital of Bangui. The action threatened to disrupt the presidential elections, Al Jazeera reported.

The rebels are now believed to control two-thirds of the country. They have been prevented from advancing on Bangui by the military, UN peacekeepers, and reinforcements from Russia and Rwanda.

Bishop Aguirre Muñoz told Fides that he fears "the aggressiveness of these mercenaries, who are looking for natural resources and wealth."

"How can you give a tender look in the midst of so much violence?" he asked.

More in Middle East - Africa

Ahead of the vote, the Central African Episcopal Conference had cautioned against political alliances comprising armed groups.

In their Dec. 19 statement, the Catholic bishops urged the government to prioritize "dialogue and national consensus in strict compliance with the constitutional order."

"We, the Bishops of the Central African Republic, condemn any politico-military alliances aimed at destabilizing the democratic system, paralyzing socio-political and economic life and damaging the peace and well-being of the Central African people," the bishops said.

The Jan. 3 attack on Bangassou came at a time when the Bangassou diocese had started several reconstruction projects.

"Now we will have to start many of these over again. There are many traumas that need to be healed," the bishop lamented.

"We will have to adapt to a new regime," Bishop Aguirre Muñoz said. "We hope that attacks and looting are avoided."

Amid the violence and insecurity, the people of God in the Central African Republic are "still there; the poor have not moved nor the Christ who dwells in them," the bishop said.

(Story continues below)

"The Christian community will continue to grow and we will continue to grow with it," he continued. He appealed for prayers for his diocese and for the Church the Central African republic.

Pope Francis visited the Central African Republic in 2015. He urged the country's leaders to work for peace and reconciliation.

The country has suffered from the latest wave of conflicts since December 2012, when several bands of mainly Muslim rebel groups formed an alliance, taking the name Seleka, and seized power in 2013, ousting then-president Bozizé, who himself took power in a coup a decade before.

In reaction to the Seleka's attacks, some Central Africans formed self-defense groups called anti-balaka. Some of these groups, mainly composed of Christians, began attacking Muslims out of revenge, and the conflict took on a sectarian character.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.