DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than a million children in the Central African Republic are in urgent need of humanitarian aid while almost half of those under five are malnourished, the United Nations said on Friday ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to the conflict-torn country.
The majority Christian nation plunged into tumult when mostly Muslim Seleka rebels briefly seized power in a 2013 coup.
Sectarian violence has plagued the country since and fresh fighting broke out in Bangui two months ago, the worst violence in the capital this year, when the murder of a Muslim man triggered reprisal attacks on a largely Christian neighborhood.
Some two million children have been affected by violence which first broke out in December 2012, and 1.2 million now need urgent aid, said the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF.
“The violence that has plagued this country has had a devastating impact on the lives of children,” said Mohamed Fall, UNICEF representative in the Central African Republic.
“The humanitarian needs are overwhelming, to meet them we need access and we need greater international support.”
The conflict has uprooted 400,000 people within the country and forced half a million to seek refuge in neighboring countries, while recent insecurity and attacks on convoys have hindered aid deliveries and lifesaving activities, UNICEF said.
Clashes between mainly Christian anti-balaka militias and mainly Muslim Seleka factions initially cast doubt on the pope’s visit, and risk derailing internationally-backed elections now due on Dec. 27 after being postponed in October due to violence.
Pope Francis is due to arrive in the country on Sunday, and Central Africans on both sides of the religious chasm, even the Seleka, have rallied behind the visit, reducing the risk that his presence could add fuel to the fire of communal tensions.
“We are hopeful that ... the Pope’s visit will promote reconciliation in a country that is in desperate need of peace,” Fall added.
UNICEF has received $37 million of the $70.9 million it needs to provide urgent lifesaving interventions for the most vulnerable children in the Central African Republic this year.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org