BANGUI (Reuters) - As the base for French forces in Central African Republic, Bangui airport is one of the safest places in town. It is now also home to around 30,000 civilians who have fled fighting between Christian and Muslim militia.
Even here, though, fear is palpable and access to the displaced, who are sprawled out across a large field or sheltering among rusting carcasses of abandoned airplanes, is controlled by Christian militia men and boys, some of whom are armed with machetes.
“It was chaos. We can’t return home,” said Alacide Bienvenu, one of the displaced, who sat at the checkpoint next to a young boy with a machete resting in his hands.
“When the French have finished their job and got rid of these people, we can return. Otherwise we’ll stay here,” he added, referring to the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels who seized power in March and went on to carry out a string of abuses, prompting the creation of Christian defense groups.
An assault on Bangui last week by these Christian militia, aided by gunmen loyal to ousted President Francois Bozize, sparked waves of killings and reprisals that killed over 500 people and displaced over 100,000 in the capital alone.
This surge has raised the number of people who have fled their homes to over 500,000 since the coalition of northern Seleka rebels took up arms.
The violence was the worst in a year of conflict and coincided with France being given U.N. authorization to intervene in its former colony, a mission aimed at bolstering an African peacekeeping mission struggling to restore order.
Within hours, reinforcements were rushed to Bangui. Within days, two French soldiers were killed trying to disarm militia.
On Thursday, Paris, which now has 1,600 men in the country, said most guns had been taken off the streets of Bangui and troops had begun disarming gunmen up-country.
“The disarming in Bangui is coming to its end,” French army spokesman Gilles Jaron said, without giving details on how many fighters had been disarmed in the capital.
Jaron said operations were underway in Bossangoa, about 300 km (186 miles) to the north, where an African peacekeeper was killed in fighting last week and tens of thousands of people are displaced.
“There were clashes in Bossangoa, but today the situation is calm and under control of (African peacekeepers) ... strengthened by arrival of French troops,” he said.
In a sign of further international efforts to prevent all-out war, the United States on Thursday began airlifting in Burundian troops who will bolster the African force, which is due to soon fall under African Union command.
However, aid workers have warned of a deepening humanitarian crisis in the run-down riverside capital, where cycles of violence have forced Christians to also seek shelter in churches and monasteries while Muslims mainly remained in their strongholds.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) wrote an open letter to the United Nations on Thursday accusing the world body of failing in its response to the crisis.
MSF said it had repeatedly asked the United Nations to provide supplies including food and tents but it had not received a concrete response.
“It’s really a mess, there’s nobody else here,” said Tessy Fautsch, emergency medical coordinator for MSF, the only aid agency at the airport, where the air is heavy with the stench of urine and excrement.
Fautsch said malaria and chest infections were already problems but the risk of further diseases was high due to the lack of water and other organizations looking after people.
“Sanitation is almost nonexistent,” Fautsch said.
Taxis returned to Bangui’s streets and long lines formed at a downtown petrol station opening for the first time in days.
However, there are reminders of simmering tensions despite reconciliation efforts by Muslim and Christian leaders.
In the Combattants neighborhood, crowds destroyed the offices of the National Herders’ Association, targeted because it is a symbol of the Muslim community many pastoralists belong to.
French troops later had to intervene to save Oumar Kobine Layana, head of the country’s Islamic community, after another crowd overpowered African peacekeepers protecting him during a visit to the St. Jacques parish near the PK5 neighborhood with a local pastor, a spokesman for the African force said.
“I send a distress call to those who have not helped us to come and help CAR which is in an extremely difficult situation,” interim Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye told French broadcaster RFI.
Reporting by Emmanuel Braun; Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier and John Irish in Paris; Writing and additional reporting by David Lewis; Editing by Eric Beech