Central African Republic town retaken by international forces

BANGUI Sun Feb 2, 2014 11:08am EST

1 of 2. A French soldier keeps guard amongst damaged homes in the district of Combattant, from which Muslims have fled due to the continuing sectarian violence, in Bangui February 1, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Siegfried Modola

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BANGUI (Reuters) - International forces in the Central African Republic have retaken a strategic town occupied for days by Muslim Seleka fighters, witnesses said on Sunday.

The fighters agreed to quit the central town of Sibut peacefully following talks with French troops from Operation Sangaris and African MISCA peacekeeping forces.

Almost a million people have been displaced by fighting since the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group seized power last March in the majority Christian country of over 4 million. At least 2,000 people are estimated to have been killed.

Seleka fighters have abandoned the riverside capital Bangui in recent days, leaving Muslim civilians vulnerable to Christian militia and mobs who have engaged in looting and killings.

Sibut, a town of around 24,000, is seen as a gateway to the northeast of the country where many Seleka fighters are regrouping. They occupied Sibut last week, and there were reports of killing of civilians there, international aid workers said.

"I am right now in the center of Sibut and all the roads and strategic points are occupied by MISCA and Operation Sangaris," Roland Mongonou, a resident of Sibut, told Reuters by telephone.

A spokesman for MISCA confirmed that Sibut was in the hands of peacekeepers, and said there was no gunfire and no conditions had been accepted before the town was retaken.

Mongonou said he and many other residents had returned to the town on Sunday morning after spending five days in the bush because they feared for their security.

The Seleka fighters left the town after negotiations in which they demanded incorporation into government security forces and financial reparations, but no conditions were granted, said Marcelin Yoyo, a national counsellor in the town.

Some fighters left in a column of vehicles for Bambari, east of Sibut, while others headed to Kaga-Bandoro due north at around 11 p.m. on Saturday night, he said.

Both towns were scenes of atrocities after Seleka came to power, and the peacekeepers' next task is to secure those towns too, Yoyo said.

In a possible sign of the direction of the conflict, an unidentified group said last week it was forming a new body, the Independence Movement of northern Central African Republic, to protect northern interests against neglect and oppression.

MISCA has more than 5,000 soldiers in the Central African Republic, where a 1,600-strong French force is also deployed.

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Mike Collett-White)

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