At Least 17 Dead in CAR After Seizure of Catholic Cathedral by Islamist Rebels
At least 17 people are now reported dead after Islamist rebels seized a Catholic cathedral compound that was housing between 4,000 and 6,000 civilians who had been driven from their homes by the fighting in the Central African Republic.
According to the Associated Press, the Rev. Thibault Ndemaguia said he had counted at least 17 bodies and 10 other people injured in the attack on the Cathedral of Saint-Joseph in Bambari on Monday, 236 miles northeast of the capital Bangui. Bambari is home to the military headquarters of the Seleka rebel movement.
The attack occurred the day before French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was expected to travel to the town, where grenade attacks wounded seven French soldiers Thursday and three others Friday. The Fides Agency reported that the French military of the Sangaris unit had clashed with the Islamist rebels and that tension was evident for the past week due to the presence of the rebels of the Seleka and the Christian anti-balaka groups.
Residents report the Islamist rebels launched the attack in retaliation for the killing of a young Muslim man after accusing church leaders of supporting local Christian militia fighters.
As reported by Reuters, church leaders said the Seleka rebels and armed civilians from the town’s Muslim community entered St. Joseph’s Cathedral at about 3:00 p.m. local time.
Rev. Firmin Gbagoua, a priest at the cathedral, said the attackers believed that Christian militia fighters, known as anti-balaka or anti-machete, were based inside.
A nun inside the cathedral compound spoke to Reuters on the phone during the attack before she quickly hung up.
“They came in. They are killing people,” said the nun. Attempts to reach her again were unsuccessful.
A Seleka official said the group had been attacked by anti-balaka fighters in a majority Muslim neighborhood and that one Muslim civilian had been killed in the clash.
“All we did was retaliate,” said Ahmat Negad, a spokesman for the group in Bambari.
The Church’s Rev. Jesus Martial Dembele, vicar general for the Archdiocese of Bangui, charged that the French forces had not stepped in to prevent the attack, Reuters says. A French military spokesman, however, said French troops had intervened at 4:00 p.m. between a primarily Muslim crowd, including Seleka fighters, and a large group of Christians when they came under fire.
Over a year of violence, thousands have died in Bambari and at least a million people have been forced from their homes, while most Muslims have fled to the north near Chad and Sudan.
In May, Catholic Online reported that Islamic rebels had attacked a Catholic parish in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, killing as many as 30 people, including the parish priest.
The violence in the area began after the takeover of the majority Christian country by the Islamist Seleka rebel group whose abuse of human rights led to the formation of the Christian militia.
Though Seleka stepped down earlier this year under significant international pressure, a fragile interim government was unable to exert its authority over the country. Despite the presence of about 6,000 African Union peacekeepers and 2,000 French soldiers, the violence has persisted in the area.