Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) peacekeepers bravely rescued nearly 2,000 civilians in the troubled Central African Republic after the fleeing Muslim civilians came under attack from the marauding mainly Christian anti-balaka militia, the military has said.
In an interview with The New Times last evening, Brig. Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita, the military and defence spokesperson, said the Rwandan peacekeepers serving under an African Union mission in CAR, were on Sunday evening forced to intervene to prevent massacres as they escorted a 70-vehicle humanitarian and commercial goods convoy from the capital Bangui to the Cameroonian sea port of Douala.
“The peacekeepers were escorting a convoy when they found civilians under attack at several roadblocks mounted by the anti-balaka militia (along the 700km road to the CAR-Cameroon border),” Nzabamwita said. “Our servicemen and women were forced to intervene to prevent mass slaughter. Unfortunately, three civilians and seven attackers died in the process.”
“Between 1,800 and 2,000 civilians were escorted to the border.”
Nzabamwita said the civilians were fleeing in groups along the highway en route to Cameroon when they came under attack.
The RDF also recovered several arms and ammunitions.
The New Times understands that the first group of civilians – in hundreds – managed to jump onto the vehicles, but the majority made it to the Cameroon border on foot under the protection of RDF peacekeepers.
One of the scenes of the attacks was reported as Beloko, a locality situated a few kilometers from the border with Cameroon.
“We condemn in the strongest terms possible this cowardly attack on the humanitarian convoy. We call upon all armed groups in CAR to lay down their arms and stop killing people,” Gen. Nzabamwita said in an earlier statement yesterday.
Last month Rwanda deployed an 850-strong continent, becoming one of the first countries to respond to an international appeal for peacekeepers to help restore sanity in the central African nation, which have had three presidents in one year.
The Rwandan mechanised infantry battalion (RwaMechBatt1), under the command of Lt. Col Jean Paul Karangwa, is serving under the African Mission to the Central African Republic (Misca), alongside several hundreds of French troops.
The Rwandan contingent is deployed in Bangui North where it is charged with protecting civilians, stabilising that part of the capital, and creating a conducive environment for the government to operate.
But the Rwandan peacekeepers have since taken up more responsibilities, such as protecting top government officials, including the president and prime minister, as well as escorting convoys of essential humanitarian and commercial supplies from the Cameroon border to Bangui.
The Rwandan peacekeepers first opened the 700km humanitarian corridor on January 27, preventing a major humanitarian crisis in the country after armed groups had cut off the all-important Bangui-Cameroon supply route that connects the capital to sea port of Douala in Cameroon.
On February 8, the RDF men and women in Bangui also intervened when a mob killed two Muslims and pursued other civilians. At that time, one of the attackers died as the peacekeepers moved in to save the targeted civilians and restore calm.
The peacekeepers in CAR are mandated to use all necessary means to protect civilians in danger.
The crisis in CAR took a religious dimension in March last year when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels swept to power, ousting President Francois Bozize.
The Seleka leader, Michael Djotodia, then installed himself as president but stepped down in January this year amid international pressure after he failed to rein in his fighters who were accused of targeting Christian communities, prompting Christian youths to mobilise, under the banner of ‘Anti-Balaka” for reprisal attacks – against Muslims.
Last month, Parliament elected former Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza as the country’s new president, presenting her with the rough challenge of restoring order in a country which Muslims continue to flee in large numbers as a result of sustained anti-balaka attacks.