GENEVA A U.N. mission to the Central African Republic found evidence of widespread human rights violations and huge numbers of people having been driven from their homes in the north of the country.
The mineral-rich but poor nation has descended into chaos since Seleka rebels captured the capital Bangui in March, toppling President Francois Bozize and unleashing a wave of violence that new leader Michel Djotodia has failed to control.
Senior U.N. officials have said the country is on the brink of collapse, and the conflict has prompted calls for the U.N. Security Council help fund and support an African Union peacekeeping force.
The U.N. team found seven villages that had been burned to the ground and deserted and another partially burned, its residents hiding in the bush.
Local people spoke of assaults, looting, and torture by armed men, U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said, echoing aid organizations and residents who say there is a complete absence of state authority outside Bangui, with roaming armed groups looting and killing at will.
"There has been a complete breakdown of any semblance of security for civilians in the Central African Republic," Melissa Fleming, chief UNHCR spokeswoman, told a U.N. briefing in Geneva on Friday.
The UNHCR estimates there are more than 209,000 displaced people in the country and says more than 62,000 have fled to neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo since the crisis began last September.
The mission, organized jointly by UNHCR and the U.N. humanitarian aid agency OCHA, traveled 500 km (300 miles) north of Bangui last week to the town of Paoua and returned to the area on Friday to distribute aid.
"There are no services really in the whole country. People are fending for themselves. The economy is in a shambles," Fleming said.
"There's a huge element of lawlessness that has fostered the emergence of other armed groups ... who have less to do with the politics than with just their own survival, their own local power, the things that happen when the security system collapses."
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Alison Williams)