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(Bangui) – Former Seleka rebel fighters who have been nominally integrated into the national army pillaged and burned a small town in the Central African Republic on November 10, 2013.  The transitional government, led by Interim President Michel Djotodia, should immediately suspend and investigate the military commander who organized the attack.

On November 10, Human Rights Watch saw Gen. Abdallah Hamat, the military commander of a large section of Ombella-Mpoko province, amass his men in the town of Gaga to join an attack against a local armed group, known as the anti-balaka, near the town of Camp Bangui. Four days later, Human Rights Watch reached Camp Bangui and found it totally destroyed. Survivors in Camp Bangui said that Seleka forces were responsible for the devastation. Hamat and another senior military officer acknowledged that their forces had been at Camp Bangui and there had been combat, causing some damage.

“The case of General Hamat is a test for President Djotodia, who has said he won’t tolerate lawlessness by forces under his command,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless the government takes steps to investigate and prosecute those responsible, these types of attacks will keep happening.”

Hamat and former Seleka fighters have committed serious abuses in Camp Bangui and should face justice, Human Right Watch said.

Owing to insecurity in the area, Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm the death toll from Camp Bangui, nor the details of the fighting. However, residents said that three dead bodies found after the attack were all civilians. The death toll is probably higher.

The Seleka, a predominantly Muslim rebel coalition led by Djotodia, overthrew former President François Bozizé on March 24. A September Human Rights Watch report details the Seleka’s deliberate killing of civilians – including women, children, and the elderly – between March and June  and confirms the wanton destruction of more than 1,000 homes, both in the capital, Bangui, and the provinces.

In an apparent attempt to distance himself from these abuses, Djotodia on September 13 officially disbanded the Seleka, some of whose members are believed to be Chadian and Sudanese. Former Seleka rebels have nominally integrated into a new “national army,” but command and control remain questionable. The group, now referred to as ex-Seleka, continues to commit abuses in the Central African Republic.

Human Rights Watch travelled to the Ombella-Mpoko province on November 10 to investigate the killing of civilians and the burning of homes during an October battle between ex-Seleka and anti-balaka forces in Gaga. The anti-balaka – armed groups created by then-President Bozizé to fight banditry – are predominantly Christian and include some soldiers who served under Bozizé in the Central African Armed Forces (FACA). In recent weeks, violence and insecurity in the Central African Republic have taken on an alarming sectarian dimension, as the anti-balaka attack Muslim civilians in response to ex-Seleka abuses.

Early in the morning of November 10, ex-Seleka fighters in Gaga, as they were leaving on motorcycles, told Human Rights Watch that they were “going to Camp Bangui to fight the anti-balaka.” Later that day General Hamat arrived in Gaga with about 12 men. He was followed by one of his officers, Col. Ahmed Akhtahir, who also came with another dozen men.

In Gaga, Hamat requisitioned motorcycles from local transporters. He then requested fuel and “donations” from the local Muslim population, asking an assembled crowd in Arabic: “Are there no loyal Muslims here to donate fuel so we can fight the enemy?” After collecting fuel and money, Hamat and Akhtahir led their forces on motorcycles on a road through a remote area of dense vegetation leading to Camp Bangui, at least 25 kilometers from Gaga and accessible only by motorcycle.

The following day, November 11, when Human Rights Watch sought to confirm reports in Gaga of a fresh attack on Camp Bangui, Commandant Ibrahiem Yusef discouraged Human Rights Watch from following “our men who went to Camp Bangui yesterday” and reporting on the incident.

Three days later, Human Rights Watch visited Camp Bangui and discovered one corpse on the road into town and the smell of decomposing remains. Once at Camp Bangui, Human Rights Watch found a town laid to waste. People had fled their homes without time to pack. Chairs were overturned, and cooking pots remained on burned-out fires. The center of the town had been completely pillaged, and the vast majority of homes, sheltering 300 to 400 families, had been burned.

Although most of the town had been abandoned, a few members of the local population remained. The residents’ accounts consistently described an attack by Hamat’s forces.

One man told Human Rights Watch, “The Seleka came on Sunday morning. We heard shooting from the direction of the football field. They fired into the village and the civilians fled.” Another resident said, “The moment we heard the shooting we ran for the bush. We had no time to prepare our bags.”

There were many burned homes, as well as ruined food, motorcycles, clothes, and furniture. One woman told Human Rights Watch, “They took everything of value that they could and they burned the rest.” Casings from assault rifles and grenade fragments littered the ground.

A resident of Camp Bangui confirmed that some men from the village returned fire on Hamat’s men with homemade hunting rifles. It is not clear if the men were anti-balaka, but the local armed group did have a strong presence in a nearby village.

The surviving population of the town is now living in the bush near the town without housing, medicine, or even the possibility of humanitarian support. The assault on the town violated international humanitarian law prohibitions against attacks against civilians and destruction and looting of civilian property.  Those who carried out or ordered the attacks are responsible for war crimes.

“Without further investigation, the number of people who died at Camp Bangui will never be known,” said Bekele. “Attacks like these on populated areas are causing massive devastation and fear among the population of the Central African Republic.”

On November 15, Human Rights Watch met with Col. Idriss Ahamat, the commanding officer of Gaga under General Hamat. He told the researcher that there had been a battle in Camp Bangui: “Some anti-balaka hid in the houses and those houses had to be burned.” When asked how many houses had been burned he replied, “Many… 200, maybe 300.” He later said that the houses had been burned inadvertently by bullets touching the grass roofs. When pressed by Human Rights Watch on the possibility of 200 homes burned by bullets, he replied, “Maybe it was only 20 or 30 houses burned… sometimes when a fire is burning it can jump from one house to the next when they are close together.”

Human Rights Watch met with General Hamat on November 15 in Bangui. The general said he was at Camp Bangui on November 10, but he downplayed the damage: “Arriving at Camp Bangui there was a combat and some houses were damaged. It was not many, maybe four homes were burned. I was there after the attack on Camp Bangui. I saw this with my own eyes.”

Hamat dismissed allegations that his troops engaged in attacks on civilians or their property, telling Human Rights Watch: “My elements do not have the right to cause disorder. If they do, I will sanction them… I want peace. I want people to return to their homes.”

Human Rights Watch observed a large number of what appeared to be child soldiers in Hamat’s ranks. Asked aboutthe age of one apparently very young soldier carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle, Commandant Yusef confirmed he was 8 years old and “a good shooter.” When asked about why he would use children so young in combat, Yusef replied, “Adults get worried and sometimes you have to give them drugs, but children just attack without retreating.”

Human Rights Watch also met with Djotodia in November and asked him about any efforts he had taken to halt abuses by his army and by ex-Seleka fighters. He said, “I can’t deny that some of these things happened, but those who are responsible will be punished.”

“The transitional government needs to rein in its forces immediately and bring to justice those overseeing these horrific abuses,” Bekele said. “With this evidence, Djotodia can’t say he didn’t know about this attack. He should suspend Hamat before the general wreaks more havoc on the populace and should investigate and prosecute all those responsible for the Camp Bangui attack.”

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