May 14, 2019 / 2:45 PM / in 7 days

First aid in years lifts hope for cut-off towns in Central African Republic

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aid workers have negotiated with fighters to enter a remote part of Central African Republic (CAR) for the first time in years, raising hope for other areas, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: A finished work of butterfly wing art showing the Central African Republic flag is seen in Bangui, Central African Republic, December 2, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was the first to reach the town of Mingala, in the southern Basse-Kotto prefecture, after exchanging written letters for months with the armed groups that control the area, the charity said.

“There are not many places as enclaved and inaccessible as Mingala was,” said Omar Ahmed Abenza, MSF chief of mission.

Tens of thousands of people in the town and surrounding villages had not seen a doctor in over two years before MSF went in late last month, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

People were drinking from rivers because dead bodies had been thrown down the wells, and diseases were rampant, MSF said.

Since heavy fighting broke out in 2017 the road to Mingala has been blocked by armed groups who set up checkpoints to collect taxes, aid workers said.

CAR has been in conflict since 2013, when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted the president, provoking a backlash from Christian militias known as “anti-balaka”.

The violence has forced more than a million people to flee their homes, and aid workers have been increasingly targeted.

The head of the U.N. humanitarian agency in CAR said the breakthrough brought hope for reaching other cut-off towns.

“This is a good sign for us,” Francois Batalingaya said.

“If MSF can go to Mingala, I would encourage other NGOs (non-governmental organisations) to access other places,” he said.

There are other areas, including further south in Basse-Kotto prefecture, where no aid worker has gone in years, he said. In some, negotiations with armed groups are underway.

Now that Mingala is accessible other charities will go in the coming weeks to provide food, said Baptiste Hanquart, head of the Coordination Committee of NGOs in CAR.

But he was skeptical that access would improve more broadly.

CAR signed a peace deal with 14 armed groups in February, but aid workers said it was too soon to see the effects and that this was not a factor in the opening of access to Mingala.

Similar agreements in 2014, 2015 and 2017 all broke down.

Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Jason Fields; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org

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