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Political dialogue begins in Central African Republic

December 9, 2008 (WASHINGTON) – Political dialogue opened Monday in the capital of Central African Republic even as international researchers warned that both the regime and the main opposition still see armed conflict as the path forward.

Violence in the country affects one million civilians in the north of the country and forced 100,000 people to flee to neighboring countries, primarily to Chad. USD 116 million is earmarked for humanitarian aid but a quarter of that has not yet been provided.

Felix Patasse, the ruler of CAR in 2003 when current President François Bozizé seized power in a coup, returned from exile on Sunday to take part in the talks.

The think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) released a 15-page report Tuesday contending that Bozizé “has been taken hostage by his close entourage of extremists” and refuses to make critical concessions for true democratization of CAR.

Crisis Group labeled several key figures in this group: Mining and Energy Minister Lt. Col. Sylvain Ndoutingai, Water and Forestry Minister Yvonne Mboissona and Thierry Maleyombo, who are all relatives of the president, along with Mail and Technology Minister Fidèle Ngouandjika.

Inclusive political dialogue is nonexistent, indicated ICG, which depicted the talks as a way of conciliating the international community. Some of the opposition, on the other hand, see the dialogue as a way to seize power, said the think tank, pointing to key figures like former prime minister Martin Ziguélé and Jean-Jacques Demafouth, leader of the Popular Army for the Restoration of Democracy (APRD).

Last month UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon observed, “despite the progress made towards the holding of the dialogue, new rebel groups, including splinter factions from existing groups, have emerged and consider themselves as being left out of the peace process.”

“The new groups have repeatedly carried out attacks against Government forces in the unstable northern prefectures,” said Ban.

The regime is largely mobilized along Gbaya ethnic lines. Other political dimensions of the conflict cross ethnic divides: former state minister Charles Massi, for instance, now the political coordinator of the rebel Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), joined rebel forces in the north despite not originating there. Moreover, the war itself is trans-national, as government figures accuse Sudan of backing rebel forces.

Accords were signed with rebel leaders last March and June in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, but ICG suggested that Bozizé holds these in bad faith. A ceasefire with UFDR and another rebel group, FDPC, has generally held since June, according to the UN secretary-general’s most recent report on the country, although newer information suggests that FDPC may have been involved in a deadly ambush against government troops on November 11.

Also, APRD clashed with government forces nine times between July 25 and October 31 in the north-western prefecture of Ouham-Pendé. FDPC leader Abdoulaye Miskine was absent from talks Monday.

ICG researchers recommended serious security sector reform for the official armed forces, but also pointed to brutalities committed by the APRD in the central west. Allegedly, APRD put in place courts to judge those it deems bad patriots: “In mid-October, seven people were condemned to death and executed after a pretence of justice.”

“The CAR is at risk of yet again disappearing from the international radar screen,” remarked researcher James Yellin, the ICG Central Africa Project Director. “If that happens, all the investment of recent years will have been in vain.”

The current UN peacekeeping mission faces budget and troop shortages and could be replaced by a regional peacekeeping force, MICOPAX, which is moving into position.

The force, created by the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), is scheduled to reach 700 members by early to mid 2009, comprised of Angolan, Cameroonian, Chadian, Gabonese and Congolese (DRC) forces, the latter of which were trained by French forces at Libreville. France will provide logistical support.

The regional force could be tasked with securing Vakaga province bordering on southern Darfur. However, Gabonese President Omar Bongo, a key mediator of the conflict, reportedly opposes using the force near the border with Sudan.

The UN Security Council is scheduled this month to decide whether to insert UN forces in place of withdrawing European forces, including French soldiers who twice halted offensives launched by UFDR in November 2006 and March 2007. But budgetary considerations could force the Security Council to limit deployments primarily to Eastern Chad.

At the end of September, UFDR forces attacked Am-Dafok, which is near Sudan.

Arguing for continued foreign support for peacekeeping, the think tank noted, “even if the ‘domino effect’ of Darfur was a simplification of the media and a way to raise humanitarian funding, as far as Central African Republic is concerned, the international community still has an important role to play as lookout in the triangle between Sudan, Chad and Central Africa.”