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article imageC. African city casts worried eye at the rise of the warlord

By Amaury HAUCHARD (AFP)     Apr 26, 2019 in World

Even by the turbulent standards of the Central African Republic, the sight was remarkable: a regional warlord stood next to VIPs at ceremonies in a city where his name is widely feared.

Less than four months earlier, Ali Darassa's militia, the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC), had been battling the forces of the government and the United Nations.

Today, though, their representatives now stood alongside him in the key city of Bambari --the next phase in a controversial bid to bring peace in the troubled country.

An armoured vehicle of the UN mission MINUSCA  guarding access to Bambari's hospital
An armoured vehicle of the UN mission MINUSCA, guarding access to Bambari's hospital

After seven failed peace deals since 2013, an accord reached in Khartoum in February has allotted government roles to 14 militia chiefs who control most of the country's territory, frequently fighting over resources and clashing over ethnic or religious affiliation.

The big hope is to encourage the warlords to work together, beefing up security and shoring up governance.

But critics fear the concessions could be a free pass to men who should be prosecuted for extrajudicial killing, rape, looting and other crimes.

The new posts risk a "sacrifice of the need for justice", warned Thierry Vircoulon, a specialist observer, after previous peace deals were undermined by the prospect of trial for war crimes.

"'Zero tolerance for impunity'," said Vircoulon, referring to a UN watchword, "has become 'zero tolerance for justice'."

- Local fears -

The ceremony in Bambari on April 15 was to present future members of mixed units that will help provide security -- an innovation incorporating rebel fighters and members of the armed forces.

Darassa, a self-appointed four-star general, was joined on the town hall steps by Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, UN under secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, and Smail Chergui, African Union commissioner for peace and security.

On March 24, three warlords were formally appointed as special military advisers to the prime minister.

Two of them are Mahamat Al Khatim, leader of the Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC), and Sidiki Abass, commander of a group called Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation, known as 3R.

The third is Darassa, who took up the post in Bambari, a crossroads town in the centre of the country. An anonymous UN source told AFP the appointment "means that he is taking charge of Bambari with the approval of Bangui".

Many residents of Bambari are deeply wary of the UPC fighters
Many residents of Bambari are deeply wary of the UPC fighters

Townsfolk turned out in strength for the ceremony but "the population was on edge", Mayor Abel Matchipata told AFP.

"The conflict has led to many victims and many abuses -- we have a lot of trouble with the armed groups."

But, he said, "We have no alternative but to accept the Khartoum accords. We have to make concessions, that is the only way if we want peace."

In 2017, MINUSCA -- the UN mission in CAR -- drove the UPC out of town and Darassa became persona non grata there.

But his men adopted a low profile and went on imposing "taxes" on cattle and minerals, before returning to open hostilities by May 2018, attacking police headquarters, church premises and several non-governmental organisations, according to a UN report.

"Ali Darassa’s appointment as a military adviser for the area where his men may have committed war crimes should not be used to give him immunity from investigation into the UPC's abuses," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Darassa with part of his personal security detail at the Bokolobo field base of his movement
Darassa with part of his personal security detail at the Bokolobo field base of his movement

- Promises -

Facing mounting criticism, the authorities have sought to provide assurance.

In a joint statement issued six days after the Bambari ceremony, the UN and MINUSCA insisted that Darassa "has not been entrusted with an official security role" for Bambari.

Conflict in the Central African Republic
Conflict in the Central African Republic

"The security of the town of Bambari remains and will remain the responsibility of the national authorities, with the support of MINUSCA," stressed the communique, which noted that the mixed brigades "are not yet operational".

And on Thursday, the CAR presidency said the peace agreement "does not grant amnesty" and was "subject to the constitution."

The deal also "attaches importance to the fight against impunity," it insisted.

But many question whether the unusual cohabitation can last, or whether it will simply be exploited by militia chiefs.

"There is a real risk that these new advisors or ministers will work to increase their military power and finance their armed groups," said Nathalia Dukhan of the US think-tank Enough Project.

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