Thousands of civilians have fled to the Central African Republic’s main international airport in order to escape from former rebel fighters, occupying the tarmac for 18 hours as a sign of protest, witnesses and officials say.
The Central African Republic has descended into violence since Seleka rebels swept into Bangui in March, toppling President Francois Bozize and unleashing a wave of violence that new leader Michel Djotodia has failed to control.
Residents of the Boeing quarter, located adjacent to the capital’s M’poko airport, began fleeing their homes on Tuesday night after Seleka fighters starting firing in the neighbourhood.
Between 5,000 and 6,000 people gathered at the airport, according to a statement by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR said that at least 10 people have been killed in the violence in Bangui.
Peacekeepers present at the airport intervened on Wednesday, firing water cannon and tear gas to disperse the crowd after some protesters began throwing stones at them.
By late afternoon, the runway had been cleared, government officials and peacekeepers said, but thousands returned to reoccupy it on Thursday.
“There were no deaths, just a few wounded. But the situation is under control,” new security and public order minister Josue Binoua said of the clearing on Wednesday.
The occupation of the airport kept several flights, including one run by Morocco’s national carrier Royal Air Maroc, from landing.
A senior officer with the Central African regional peacekeeping mission based at the airport said the thousands of civilians who fled there overnight had refused to leave the tarmac.
“They came here because they are afraid,” he said. The peacekeepers were forced to intervene to stop Seleka fighters from entering, he said.
Residents of the Boeing neighbourhood said that what started as an evacuation had become a protest against the state of lawlessness.
“Our presence here at the airport has one goal – to get the world’s attention. Because we are fed up with these Seleka,” said Antoine Gazama.
The UNHCR said that was it was “deeply concerned for the safety of the civilian population, especially those who are forced to flee from their houses in search of safety,” according to a statement by Liz Ahua, the UNHCR’s deputy director in Africa. “We urge the authorities to use all means to stop attacks against civilians, restore security and protect the population.”
Seleka banned from Bangui
Seleka, a grouping of five rebel movements that Djotodia used to lead, has repeatedly raided rural villages and Bangui neighbourhoods under the pretext of searching for weapons caches and armed Bozize loyalists.
Human rights groups say they are responsible for widespread looting, torture and summary executions.
The security minister said the airport occupation forced President Djotodia to call an emergency meeting during which the government decided to ban Seleka from entering Bangui neighbourhoods.
“Only the forces of order, notably the police and gendarmes, are authorised to ensure and reestablish order in the country and particularly in the city of Bangui,” Binoua said.
Moments earlier, Djotodia had ordered Seleka forces based in the northern Bangui neighbourhood of Boy-Rabe to return to their bases and allow the police and gendarmes to move in.
Regular forces attempting to take over from Seleka militia chiefs were also backed by troops from the African Union’s International Support Mission to Central Africa (MISCA).
Seleka – which means “alliance” in the local Sango language – counts approximately 25,000 combatants, but many obey only their immediate superiors.
French President Francois Hollande called on the UN Security Council and the African Union on Tuesday to stabilise the situation in the Central African Republic, warning that the state was at risk of completely collapsing.
Senior UN officials made a similar warning this month and said the crisis was threatening to spread beyond Central African Republic’s borders.
They called for the Security Council to fund and support an African Union peacekeeping force.