The United Nations refugee agency today voiced concern over widespread looting and displacement in various parts of the Central African Republic (CAR), and appealed to the Government to enhance access to vulnerable population so they can receive assistance.
After conducting an assessment mission last week in Bambari, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) found many villages completely deserted, with residents hiding in the bush from armed groups and looters.
"The villagers we managed to speak to reported aggression by armed groups seeking fuel, money and food," UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva. "The visits of these groups are sometimes accompanied by violence against men and women, including beatings with electric cables. A village chief reported being flogged on 3 February by rebels who were trying to get him to reveal where villagers were hiding their possessions."
The CAR has a history of political instability and recurring armed conflict. The country saw renewed fighting in December, when an alliance of rebel groups - known, collectively, as 'Séléka' - launched a series of attacks and took control of major towns before agreeing to start peace talks under the auspices of the regional group known as the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).
The assessment mission, which was carried out jointly by UNHCR and Mercy Corps, was the first since the last wave of violence began in December.
Mr. Edwards said looting had occurred in towns controlled by Séléka rebels, including Bambari and Kaga Bandoro, where UNHCR has offices. He added that humanitarian facilities and refugee camps such as Camp Pladama Ouaka, where some 2,000 Sudanese refugees live, have been a main target.
"According to our colleagues, community facilities, the distribution centre, and the warehouse of an NGO [non-governmental organization] partner, have all been looted. Solar lamps, that were used to light the camp, have also been taken away," he said.
Supplies have also been stolen from UNHCR's facilities in Bambari and Kaga Bandoro. Tarpaulins, blankets, soap, mosquito nets, mats, jerry cans, buckets, clothes, lamps and solar panels for 3,000 refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are among the missing items.
UNHCR estimates the combined loss of its aid supplies and damage to its office premises at $316,000.
"Access for humanitarian work in CAR remains very limited as a result of the lack of security guarantees, for both humanitarian workers and for people in need," Mr. Edwards said. "UNHCR is appealing to the Government and the Seleka rebels to facilitate better access for humanitarians to populations in need."
Currently, UNHCR estimates there to be 80,000 IDPs in the country, and a refugee population of 17,000 - mostly of Sudanese origin.
Even before the recent outbreak of fighting, CAR was one of the poorest countries in the world. It has the ninth highest rate of child mortality with 8 per cent of children between six months and five years of age suffering from moderate acute malnutrition and 1.9 per cent with severe acute malnutrition.