DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Fighters in Central African Republic have destroyed dozens of villages since February, compounding a humanitarian crisis that affects the country's entire population of 4.6 million people, human rights and aid groups said Friday.
The organizations said the international community has largely turned its back on a country that was plunged into a new round of instability when the Seleka rebel coalition ousted President Francois Bozize in March.
"The world doesn't seem to notice that the Central African Republic is facing a catastrophic situation," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director for Human Rights Watch. "Seleka fighters are killing civilians and burning villages to the ground while some villagers are dying in the bush for lack of assistance."
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch researchers confirmed attacks on 34 villages and towns believed to have been carried out by Seleka fighters between Feb. 11 and June 2. The attacks led to the deaths of at least 40 civilians and the destruction of more than 1,000 houses.
Witnesses told the rights groups that the attackers were uniformed Seleka fighters sometimes joined by armed nomadic pastoralists, and that civilians were targeted in the attacks.
"When they entered the village, they started chasing at us (and) shot at people inside their homes or running outside toward the bush," one witness said. "Most of the villagers were shot in the back while running."
A Seleka spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
The rights group said that public security minister Noureddine Adam denied that Seleka fighters were responsible. Central African Republic is now run by a transitional government headed by Seleka leader Michel Djotodia.
"These attacks were perpetrated by other armed groups before our arrival," Adam said. "The Seleka is not involved in this destruction of villages nor in the killings."
Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations Security Council to consider sanctions against Seleka leaders responsible for abuses.
Nine aid agencies issued a joint statement Friday saying the rainy season was exacerbating a humanitarian crisis that has led to severe food shortages. In the last six months, more than 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, leaving them dependent on emergency services, the statement said.
The agencies noted that there was no regular United Nations presence outside the capital of Bangui, and that there was an $80 million funding gap for humanitarian assistance.
"Before the coup, the humanitarian situation in C.A.R. was already dire. Now it's even worse," said Jean-Philippe Marcoux, country director for Mercy Corps, one of the agencies that signed onto the statement.
"Nations must donate now to help the country get back on its feet," he said.
He said that while insecurity remained an issue, with attacks directed at the humanitarian community occurring "every other week," the aid agencies were still able to work.