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Central African Republic: 'like Darfur plus anarchy'

Fear grips Central African Republic (CAR).

The scenes depicted in recent media pictures of the country's main airport in the capital, Bangui, are testimony to the terror faced by huge numbers of people in the country.

More than 100,000 displaced people and refugees have gathered at the airport, not with the aim of leaving the country but simply in an effort to live away from the terrifying sectarian violence between Christian and Muslim militias that has swept this nation.

In the past few days Amy Martin, head of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in CAR, described the country as being "like Darfur plus anarchy".

Darfur, a region in western Sudan, has of course been subjected to its own war between Sudanese government forces and the indigenous population, and been in a state of humanitarian emergency since 2003. Now CAR looks to be heading down the same dangerous path.

Adding to the political unpredictability of CAR's predicament, pressure has been growing on the country's interim leader, Michel Djotodia, to step down.

At a regional summit of the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC) in the Chadian capital N'Djamena this week, CEEAC Secretary General Ahmat Allami said the group would tell Mr Djotodia that his transitional government was not working.

According to political sources in Bangui and some within the French diplomatic community Mr Djotodia is expected to announce his departure before the summit closes, something his aides have strongly denied.

The crises started last March, when Muslim Seleka rebels staged a coup and installed Mr Djotodia as the country's first Muslim leader. In the wake of that turmoil the then-president Francois Bozize, from CAR's majority Christian population, was forced into exile and the country plunged into chaos.

Since the December 5 UN Security Council resolution that granted a mandate for African Union and French forces to intervene in CAR, their combined forces have struggled to stop tit-for-tat violence between Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian militias in which more than 1000 people have died.

Roughly 1600 French troops are currently in the country and have started patrolling Bangui, as well as other areas in the west, but the situation continues to spiral.

Many veteran aid workers who know the country well say there are signs that power may be slipping away from the Seleka, partly because some are from neighbouring Chad and are returning home. Should this continue, a Christian backlash against the Muslim population (a minority in CAR) would likely gain momentum with the potential for massive bloodshed on a scale not yet seen.

Highlighting how such an escalation could so easily occur, one aid worker at a Catholic mission in the town of Bozoum, north of the capital Bangui, where some 3000 people have sought shelter, fears an imminent massive attack. The town is said to be surrounded by Christian militia, threatening to massacre Muslim residents.

Sensing the possible meltdown of an already incendiary situation, European Union officials are said to have proposed that the EU move very quickly now by sending a force of at least battalion-strength, roughly 700 to 1000 soldiers, to the west of the country or the capital.

France of course has been making such overtures for some time, but its government cannot yet be sure that such willingness exists among EU member governments for sending a military mission that might put EU soldiers' lives at risk.

Any hesitancy or reluctance on the EU members' behalf is the worst possible new for countless innocent civilians from both Christian and Muslim communities who face not only attack but a deepening humanitarian catastrophe as disease and hunger spread.

Ask any aid worker what they need most in the first instance to carry out their work and they will tell you that security is paramount. In the past few months the Seleka have targeted humanitarian organisations, and with the rise of Christian militias the situation on the ground makes any large scale humanitarian operation near impossible.

To date, very little of what food, water and medical assistance have been sent has reached the displaced especially in more remote rural areas. First and foremost the emphasis now must be on enhancing security to ensure the unfettered provision of aid.

"If you are incapable, if you are powerless in the face of the situation, make way for others who can do a better job," Mr Allami warned Mr Djotodia this week at the regional summit.

Only time will tell if Mr Djotodia heeds such a call. Time, however, is something the people of CAR have precious little of right now when faced with a situation that could so easily slip into sectarian genocide.

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