Former minister killed as Central African Republic clashes escalate

BANGUI Fri Jan 24, 2014 11:47pm GMT

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BANGUI (Reuters) - A Muslim former minister was hacked to death by machete-wielding militiamen in the capital of the Central African Republic on Friday, as clashes escalated a day after interim President Catherine Samba-Panza took office.

At least nine other people were killed when bands of people, some of them Christian self-defence groups, attacked and looted shops in the mostly Muslim Miskine neighbourhood of Bangui, witnesses said.

The landlocked former French colony descended into chaos last March when the Muslim rebel Seleka coalition marched into the capital, unleashing a wave of killing and looting. That triggered revenge attacks by Christian militia known as "anti-balaka", or "anti-machete".

The tit-for-tat violence has killed over 2,000 since December, and forced about a million people - nearly a quarter of the population - to flee despite the deployment of about 1,600 French troops and 5,000 African Union peacekeepers.

Former minister Joseph Kalite, who once held the housing portfolio, was stepping out of a taxi when he was attacked, a family member now in hiding told Reuters by phone.

"The anti-balaka started attacking him with machetes and sticks and they killed him," said the relative, who requested anonymity. He added that a brother-in-law who was with Kalite at the time of the attack managed to escape.

The minister's body was later recovered and taken to the Ali Babolo Mosque where Reuters reporters saw the mutilated corpse.

"He wasn't even holding any function within the Seleka, he was excluded by the Seleka, but as he was a Muslim official, they cowardly killed him because of that," Mamoud Hissene, vice-president of a Muslim youth organisation, told Reuters television.

REVENGE ATTACKS

Taking advantage of the disbanding and disarming of some Seleka forces, anti-balaka bands are carrying out revenge attacks on them and the minority Muslim population they accuse of colluding with the Seleka.

Anti-balaka militias began attacking and looting shops in Miskine on Friday, prompting retaliation from Seleka fighters. Automatic gunfire and explosions could be heard as residents ran for cover.

French forces and the Rwandan contingent of the MISCA African Union peacekeeping force fired warning shots to keep the belligerents apart.

Local Red Cross president Pastor Antoine Mbao Bogo said nine bodies were recovered from the streets on Friday and 11 other people were wounded during the fighting.

In PK12, another mostly Muslim neighbourhood, fearful Muslim residents loaded their household belongings into trucks to await an armed escort to take them out of the city in a convoy.

A few hundred metres away an anti-balaka crowd taunted them while French forces kept the two communities apart, they added.

Central African Republic, one of Africa's poorest countries despite its mineral wealth, appointed Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza as interim national leader this week.

Its former President Michel Djotodia, head of the Seleka coalition, stepped down on January 10 under intense international pressure.

Samba-Panza is expected to appoint a new government in the coming days.

(Additional reporting by Paul-Marin Ngoupana; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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