comments_image Comments

20 killed in grenade attack on C.Africa funeral service

African Union troops are pictured during an operation in Bangui on March 25, 2014
African Union troops are pictured during an operation in Bangui on March 25, 2014

At least 20 people were killed when extremists threw hand grenades at mourners during a Christian funeral service in the Central African Republic capital of Bangui, the government said on Friday.

"Around 11:00 pm (Thursday) a group of extremists, well known to the police, threw hand grenades at a crowd that was attending a wake," Public Security Minister Denis Wangao Kizimale told national radio.

In addition to the 20 people who died in the attack, 11 others were wounded and hospitalised, he added.

A pregnant women and several children were among the victims a source close to the families at the funeral service told AFP.

"The government condemns this odious act. Already, an inquiry has been opened to determine the circumstances of this crime. Those responsible will be found and brought to justice," said Kizimale.

Members of the local community held an angry street protest on Friday, blaming the attack on Muslims, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.

The attack comes as the United Nations refugee agency warned that foreign peacekeepers were now the only shield protecting Muslims in parts of the CAR from mass slaughter.

- 'Massacre' warning -

Freshly back from the conflict-torn country, Volker Turk, a senior official from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the scale of communal hatred was shocking.

Turk told reporters that he had travelled to Boda, southwest of Bangui.

"You have a Muslim community essentially besieged, with a no-man's land in between the Muslim quarter and the Christian community," he said.

"There would be a massacre were it not for Sangaris. Were it not for Sangaris, that Muslim community would no longer exist," he said, referring to the name of a French peacekeeping operation.

"We see a similar situation -- and that has deteriorated over the last couple of days -- in Bangui itself," he added.

Some 8,000 foreign troops -- 2,000 from former colonial power France and most of the rest from the African MISCA force -- are trying to disarm rival militias after a year of sectarian violence.

Thousands have been killed and around a quarter of the country's 4.6 million people displaced, most of them Muslim.

- UN resolution planned -

France has tried to rally international support for increased peacekeeping efforts in its former colony.

On Friday, its ambassador to the UN Gerard Araud said France hopes to have a resolution adopted at the UN Security Council "in around 10 days", authorising the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission.

French President Francois Hollande will also co-chair a "mini-summit" of African Union and EU leaders on Wednesday "to see how to restore security and stop the killings" in Central Africa.

However, EU countries have been reluctant to get involved, with a plan to deploy 500 additional EU troops delayed as a result of insufficient contributions from member states.

The former French colony was thrown into chaos after rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka movement seized power in a March 2013 coup.

They were forced out of power in January, sparking retaliatory violence against Muslims that has prompted the United Nations to speak of fears of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The mostly Christian anti-balaka militias, which were first formed as self-defence groups in response to atrocities carried out by the Seleka, persistently attack areas where Muslims live.

"The anti-balaka elements are now becoming much more militarised. There is a transformation of violence that is taking place, with especially the Muslim populations inside Bangui but also other parts of the west of the Central African Republic being increasingly threatened," said Turk.

Entire regions have been abandoned by a minority Muslim population that for decades lived peacefully alongside Christians, once the conflict took on unprecedented ethnic and religious dimensions.

Only the international community has the power to halt the crisis, said Turk.

"The government is absolutely overwhelmed and has no capacity. We should not have any illusion that we are confronted here with any functioning state structure," he said.