Monday, November 20, 2006
BANGUI, 20 Nov 2006 (IRIN) - The army of the Central African Republic has told aid agencies to suspend their activities in the northwestern town of Paoua until military operations against armed groups in the area are over, the military and aid agency officials said on Monday."We have been asked to stop our operations in and around the town of Paoua for security reasons," Mario Baldin, the head of Italian NGO COOPI in Bangui, said. The order also affects Médecins Sans Frontières-France and the International Committee of the Red Cross which operate in the area. As a result of this measure, residents will be without medical services as hospitals and clinics have already been destroyed since the army began fighting armed groups in the area in January. There is no clear indication of just how long the suspension of humanitarian activity will last. MSF workers in Paoua said children were the most affected by the fighting. Many were malnourished, they said, and 95 percent in the Paoua Sub-prefecture Hospital are suffering from malaria.Although the NGOs have been asked to suspend operations, they are not required to leave Paoua. Consequently, Baldin said, COOPI would follow the example of the International Committee of the Red Cross and remain in the area. MSF-France said on Friday it preferred "to keep silent" on its present and planned activities in the area. For the past two weeks, Baldin said, Paoua remaining residents had been fleeing Paoua, fearing they would get caught up in the fighting. "When you talk to people in the town you feel they have the feeling that something drastic is likely to happen in the region," he said. Before the fighting erupted on 29 January, the town's population was between 35,000 and 40,000. Some have now fled to neighbouring Chad. The town's remaining population is unknown.The decision by the army in Paoua to suspend humanitarian activities in the region has followed army complaints that since January humanitarian organisations have been providing armed bandits and rebels with medical help and food in the zone.However, Baldin denied any deliberate action in this respect. "We don’t know who the rebels are," he said. "We are providing assistance to villagers in need and we are unable to tell the difference between civilians and armed bandits or rebels."Armed groups and rebels in Paoua are not uniformed, making it impossible to distinguish them from civilians. The most significant is the Armée Populaire pour la Restauration de la République et de la démocratie, headed by Bedaya N'Djadder, a former gendarme who defected from the service.Since October 2005, armed groups have attacked the army several times in the Paoua area. Since then fighting has intensified. "Fierce fighting between the rebel groups and Chadian troops has been going on in the region and around Paoua since last weekend," a lieutenant at army headquarters in Bangui, who declined to be identified, said. This resurgence in military activity in the northwest comes as other rebels, known as the Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement, have so far captured three towns in the north of the country and are targeting Bria, capital of the northeastern province of Haute-Kotto. With at least 20,000 inhabitants, Bria often has food problems as the town's economic mainstay is diamond mining. It has little agricultural activity and food is expensive.