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(New York)- The Chadian army has launched numerous cross-border raids on villages in northwestern Central African Republic (CAR) in recent weeks, killing civilians, burning villages, and stealing cattle.

Since January 2008, Human Rights Watch researchers documented at least five separate cross-border attacks on Central African border villages, mostly between Markounda and Maitoukoulou in the northwestern part of the country. Chadian army troops appear to be acting in support of CAR and Chadian cattle herders known as Peuhls, at odds with local CAR farmers trying to protect their crops. The worst violence occurred on February 29, in a rampage that destroyed six villages in the area of Maitoukoulou.

More than 1,000 people have been internally displaced or have been forced to flee across the border into southern Chad. The internally displaced live in dire conditions in Maitoukoulou camps, and in fear of further attacks, Human Rights Watch has found.

“The people in the northern part of CAR are getting it from all directions. They’ve been attacked by rebel groups, bandits, their own army and now the Chadian army,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These deadly incursions by the Chadian army further destabilize an already precarious region.”

CAR local farmers and nomadic Peuhl herders driving their cattle south from Chad during the dry season regularly clash over crop destruction by cattle and access to grazing and water sources. Because of the widespread insecurity in the region, the CAR authorities no longer play a prominent role in resolving these conflicts, and armed groups are increasingly involved in the clashes.

Local farmers told Human Rights Watch that in late 2007, they joined with CAR anti-government rebels in the region, the Popular Army for the Restoration of Democracy (APRD), to keep Peuhl herders off their lands. Clashes erupted in Katogo, Batangafo, and Bakassa between the Peuhls and the farmer-supported APRD. In response, the Peuhl apparently convinced the Chadian authorities to intervene on their behalf. The first incursions by the Chadian army took place in mid-January in the village of Sabo, followed by increasingly intense attacks on Dokabi, Bele, and Daga on the Markounda-Maitoukoulou road, as well as Bedaya Two and Bebingui, north of Paoua, in mid-February.

The clashes intensified on February 29, when marked Chadian military vehicles unloaded soldiers inside CAR, who then crossed the Ouham River on foot and on horseback into the village of Silambi. Together with Peuhl herders, the Chadian soldiers entered the town around 5 a.m., shooting indiscriminately. Witnesses said most of the attackers were men armed with assault weapons, wearing military uniforms with the Chadian flag on the sleeve and the distinct khaki-green turbans of the Chadian armed forces, and were speaking Chadian Arabic. One civilian was killed and another wounded by gunshots. The attackers pillaged and looted the village before setting fire to some 200 thatch-roofed houses, as well as the school and church. All but five buildings with tin roofs were burned down. The population of several hundred people fled, leaving behind their belongings and food.

Eyewitnesses and village officials told Human Rights Watch that the same day the attackers destroyed the next villages they crossed: Maikoyo, Ngartubam, Maissoulo Two, Dawala, and Tira. In each village, they repeated their scorched earth tactics. By mid-morning, they had destroyed all these villages except part of Tira, where they rested until mid-afternoon. They detained five residents to do chores such as fetching water, and slaughtering and cooking goats. The three detained men and two women were whipped and beaten by the soldiers. One 40-year-old woman who was among the detainees described to Human Rights Watch researchers how the soldiers forced her to burn her own house, as well as those of her husband and her son. She refused, but they whipped her until she agreed to participate.

In all, four people were killed during the February 29 attacks and at least four others wounded. Of the wounded, one died later that day. Another wounded was taken to Chad by the attackers and eventually released for a ransom of 15,000 CFA (about $35). A third man was taken by the villagers to a medical clinic in Gon, Chad, and was later abducted by the Chadian army. His family went to the nearest Chadian military base, in Moïssala, to find him, but he remains missing and there are grave concerns about his well-being.

It remains unclear whether the attacks by the Chadian army have been approved and coordinated with the CAR authorities, who have in previous years allowed the Chadian army to operate within the border region. Since the raids were partially in retaliation against the rebel APRD group, evidence suggests that the CAR authorities may have authorized the attacks. One of the villages attacked, Bebingui, is the hometown of APRD spokesperson Laurent Djim Weil.

Between 2005 and 2007, the security forces of the Central African Republic, particularly the elite Presidential Guard, carried out massive abuses against the civilian population of northwestern CAR, executing hundreds of civilians and burning down an estimated 10,000 homes in an abusive counterinsurgency campaign against the APRD. In September 2007, Human Rights Watch published a detailed report, State of Anarchy, documenting these killings and village burnings. The CAR authorities withdrew the abusive Presidential Guards from northwestern CAR in late 2007, leading to a dramatic drop in executions and other abuses.

“The security situation for civilians in northwestern CAR remains very fragile,” said Gagnon. “The Chad government needs to immediately instruct its troops not to participate in these attacks. The victims also deserve accountability for these attacks and the abuse they sustained.”

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