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Malnutrition, infection rife in Central African Republic as violence escalates

People in the Central African Republic take shelter next to a cathedral in Bossangoa, north of the capital Bangui. Photo by Matthieu Alexandre/AFP/Getty Images

Updated Dec. 5 | The 15-member U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Thursday to allow French and African forces “to take all necessary measures,” including military action, to protect citizens and restore order in the Central African Republic. The approved resolution also imposes an arms embargo on the CAR for a year and calls for a U.N.-led inquiry into human rights abuses.

Original story posted Dec. 4 at 3:50 p.m. ET:

An escalation of violence in the Central African Republic is causing thousands to flee their homes into the wilderness, posing a humanitarian challenge in a country that has suffered from destabilization for years.

“We are really concerned about the displacement of the population to the bush. They are completely hidden. They don’t have any shelter, food. They are exposed to violence and they have no access to any health care system,” said Albert Carames, a humanitarian affairs officer with Doctors Without Borders who is based in Bangui, the capital of CAR.

An estimated one in three people in the country of about 5 million need food, protection, health care, water sanitation and shelter, said U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson on Nov. 25.

The United Nations estimates about 400,000 people have left their homes since the spring and are seeking refuge in crowded dirty camps. Doctors Without Borders has been dispatching mobile units to help those who can’t reach their clinics.

“We see many cases of malnutrition, especially women and children,” said Carames. The people in hiding are exposed to infections and malaria, which continues to pose a risk even beyond its peak season of July through September.

The current troubles started late last year when several rebel groups created a coalition called Seleka. In March, they overthrew President Francois Bozize and installed their own leader Michel Djotodia as interim president. But according to reports, Djotodia has been unable to control renegade fighters who are mostly Muslim and are attacking the perceived Christian supporters of the ousted president. Christian self-defense militias have sprung up and are launching retaliatory attacks, sometimes against Muslim civilians.

The clashes have intensified in recent weeks particularly in the north near the border with Chad, raising worries of possible genocide. The latest skirmish left 12 dead and wounded at least 30, according to the United Nations.

France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that CAR was “on the verge of genocide.” “It’s total disorder,” he told France 2 television.

Human Rights Watch described how at least one town — Camp Bangui — was destroyed after fighting broke out between Seleka rebels and a local armed group. The group said it was a test of how serious President Djotodia wants to clamp down on lawlessness. “Unless the government takes steps to investigate and prosecute those responsible, these types of attacks will keep happening,” said Daniel Bekele, HWR’s Africa director.

“The CAR is becoming a breeding ground for extremists and armed groups in a region that is already suffering from conflict and instability. If this situation is left to fester, it may degenerate into a religious and ethnic conflict with longstanding consequences, a relentless civil war that could easily spill over into neighboring countries,” said the United Nations’ Eliasson.

The diamond- and timber-exporting CAR is surrounded by Chad, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Eliasson has proposed turning the African Union-led International Support Mission in the CAR (MISCA) into a beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force. The U.N. Security Council is meeting Thursday to consider how to address the deteriorating situation.

France reportedly is circulating a draft resolution to authorize the African-led force to restore order and to allow the temporary deployment of French troops to the former French colony. France already has sent 200 communications and logistics personnel and is expected to send at least 500 more. The Congo Republic also has deployed 500 troops.

Doctors Without Borders’ Carames said although more attention is given to CAR these days in response to the recent violence, the international community is still “doing much less than what the civilian population needs. For years we have denounced the neglect of this country.”

Alex Thomson of Independent Television News reported from the village of Vakap about the continuing violence on Wednesday’s PBS NewsHour. View all of our World coverage.

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