UN recaptures rebel-held city ahead of Central African elections

The Central African Republic’s fourth largest city, seized by rebels on Tuesday ahead of this weekend’s elections, is in the hands of UN peacekeepers and national security forces, the UN said.

“The situation in Bambari is under control,” said Abdoulaziz Fall, spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSCA, at a news conference in the CAR capital Bangui on Wednesday.

“Civilians are starting to return. The armed groups have been shot back in the bush.”

The attack followed the government’s accusations over the weekend that former President Francois Bozize was planning a coup with armed groups ahead of the presidential and legislative elections next Sunday.

At CAR’s request, Russia and Rwanda have sent “hundreds” of military personnel to support the troubled country, the government said, an account confirmed by those countries.

Bambari is located 380 kilometers (240 miles) northeast of Bangui.

Members of a militia called the Unity for Peace in Central Africa (UPC) topped the city on Tuesday after a two-hour firefight with MINUSCA, sources said.

The mayor said on Tuesday that civilians had not been attacked, but the police station, the gendarmerie and some homes had been ransacked.

CAR is one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world and has experienced only rare moments of peace since it became independent from France in 1960.

Bozize came to power in a coup in 2003 before being overthrown in 2013, in a conflict that largely reflected CAR’s sectarian divisions.

The 74-year-old former general slipped back into the country in December 2019 after years in exile, which guessed the fear of a comeback.

Bozize retains a large following, especially among the Gbaya ethnic group, the country’s largest, and has many followers in the army.

He denies the allegations of an attempted coup.

He has been barred from contesting Sunday’s election by the CAR’s Supreme Court because he is the target of a 2014 arrest warrant for alleged murder and torture and is under UN sanctions.

His absence has left the incumbent, Faustin-Archange Touadera, 63, as the clear front-runner in the 17-strong field of presidential candidates.

But the Touadera government is still weak and the armed forces are poorly equipped and trained and are still heavily dependent on MINUSCA.

Despite a peace agreement between the government and armed groups in February 2019, the country remains distorted by violence.

Militias house over two-thirds of the territory and receive income from mining and forced payments at barricades and traders.

Thousands of people have died in the last seven years, and almost a quarter of the population of 4.7 million have fled their homes.