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“An attack in Bangui [the capital] on Wednesday on the Notre Dame de Fatima church has resulted in the deaths of at least 17 people and 27 civilians reportedly abducted by assailants who drove them to an unknown location,” a UNHCR statement said.
A priest was also killed in the attack.
Some 9,000 IDPs who had fled fighting in other parts of the country had sought refuge in the church, some having arrived more than 18 months ago.
UNHCR spokesperson Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba said that 32 of the 43 official IDP sites are religious institutions.
“Churches, monasteries and mosques have till now been safe havens for internally displaced persons across the CAR,” she said.
On Thursday, a group of Christian men sacked an empty mosque in Bangui in a reprisal attack.
With Bangui completely purged of Muslims, there are now fears that the anti-Balaka Christian militia are turning their guns on their own communities as a way of extorting money and influence. This has not been verified as the identity of the church attackers has not yet been determined.
Mostly Muslim Seleka rebels operate north of Bangui.
The current crisis in CAR – a mineral rich nation of 4.6 million people – began in December 2012 when Seleka – a rebel amalgamation of several different factions – began to move toward Bangui in hopes of removing Bozize, a military officer who seized power in 2003 and has been elected president twice since then.
In January 2013, a ceasefire was reached and an UN-sponsored peace process led to the formation of a unity government in which the president was allowed to remain in office till 2016, provided top ministerial positions went to members of the Seleka Coalition.
However, on March 23, 2013 the Coalition broke the national unity agreement and seized the capital Bangui. In the fighting, 13 South African peace-keeping soldiers were killed and 27 others wounded during a clash with the rebels. South Africa withdrew its forces.
In December 2013, CAR President Michel Djotodia – a Muslim brought to power by the Seleka Coalition, called on the militia to exercise restraint and lay down their arms after nearly 1,000 people were reported killed in fighting with newly formed Christian militias.
His attempts to calm the situation failed and in January 2014 he fled to nearby Benin.
His departure ushered in a new government, which consists of 20 ministers, including seven women, three former members of the Muslim Seleka alliance, and one individual associated with the Christian anti-Balaka militia tasked with preparing for elections that could stabilise the country.
The country’s National Assembly selected Catherine Samba-Panza to be the next president.
But since then violence and ethnic fighting has only increased.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has repeatedly urged European powers provide peacekeepers to stabilise the situation.
In April, the UN Security Council authorised a force to reinforce existing international peacekeepers to reach a total of 12,000 armed personnel.
But most of the reinforcements won’t arrive in CAR until September.
In the meantime, Lejeune-Kaba has warned that the attack on previously safe religious institutions could be a turning point to the worse.