The Central African Republic is teetering on the brink of catastrophe, with millions of people cut off from vital humanitarian aid amid a renewal of deadly sectarian clashes. What is scarcely being reported, however, is that the murky involvement of American special forces could tip the country into all-out civil war.
In the past week, dozens of civilians have been killed in clashes between Christian and Muslim militias in the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui. The latest round of violence was sparked after a Muslim taxi driver was attacked and decapitated by machete-wielding gangs. That in turn led to reprisals against Christian communities.
UN humanitarian aid chief Stephen O’Brien warned that the country was on the brink of disaster with more than 40,000 people having fled the capital in recent days. In total, some 2.7 million people – half the country’s population – are at risk of being cut-off from the humanitarian aid upon which they depend for survival. The worsening sectarian strife is simply making it too dangerous for relief agencies to operate.
Potentially adding fuel to this crisis is the disclosure last week that US Special Forces are liaising with one of the militia sides in the Central African Republic (CAR). The group the US forces have struck up a liaison with are known as the Seleka rebels, whose members are mainly Muslim.
For the past two years, the Seleka have engaged in a low-intensity war with the rival Christian “anti-Balaka” faction in a power struggle for control of the country. The CAR is rich in gold, diamonds, timber and uranium. The landlocked state has a landmass equivalent to that of its former colonial ruler France, yet a population less than 10 percent of France’s. Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the country has witnessed five coup d’états, some with French covert involvement.
Burnt out motorcycles lie abandoned in front of destroyed huts in Mount Sumi, Angola, in this picture taken May 3, 2015. © Herculano Coroado / Reuters
Thousands of civilians have been killed so far in the two-year sectarian cycle of violence, with millions of people displaced, often seeking shelter in makeshift jungle hideouts. The very real danger is that perceived American backing for one side over the other could trigger an even greater scale killing.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that American special forces had set up a jungle base in the northeast of CAR, where the Seleka militia has their stronghold. “The Pentagon had not previously disclosed that it is cooperating with Seleka and obtaining intelligence from the rebels. The arrangement has made some US troops uncomfortable,” according to the Post.
The stated objective of the US military is to hunt down a notorious warlord, Joseph Kony, who runs a guerrilla outfit known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Kony and his LRA are believed to be responsible for mass atrocities and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Originally from Uganda, Kony and his LRA gained notoriety when a US-based charity Invisible Children released a video nearly four years ago publicizing the group’s violations. With various American celebrities endorsing the video, US President Barack Obama sent Special Forces to four African countries with the mission of tracking down Kony and his accomplices. Those countries include Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
So far, Kony has evaded capture even though Washington has placed a $5 million bounty on his head. He is believed to be holed up in a remote jungle area straddling the borders of the four African countries where the US special forces are operating. The terrain is thick jungle with few roads and is said to cover an area the size of California.
“Imagine searching for 200 criminals in an area the size of California covered in jungle,” the Post quotes a US military officer as saying. “Between poachers, the ivory trade and the LRA, you don’t know who’s who.”
In this elusive hunt for warlord Kony and his LRA, the US military are turning to the Seleka militia for “intelligence”.
But, as noted, that liaison with the Seleka is causing some disquiet among the US troops on the ground. This is because the Seleka have gained a reputation for atrocities on par with those of Kony and the LRA, including murdering civilians, raping women and recruiting child soldiers into their ranks.
A Malian gendarme climbs stairs at the Byblos hotel, site of a siege over the weekend in which 17 people died in Sevare, Mali, August 11, 2015. © Adama Diarra / Reuters
The Post reports: “According to US military officials, the team of US troops in Sam Ouandja [the jungle base in northeast CAR] meets regularly with Seleka leaders, obtains intelligence from the rebels and sometimes provides medical care to Seleka loyalists.” The paper adds: “The cooperation is a sensitive subject. The Pentagon doesn’t advertise its dealings with Seleka and declined to comment in detail about the interactions.”
The Pentagon’s reluctance to “advertise its dealings” is hardly surprising. In 2013, the US-based Human Rights Watch recorded a reign of terror under the Seleka in the Central African Republic, including how its forces “destroyed numerous rural villages, looted country-wide and raped women and girls.”
HRW reported on extrajudicial killings by the Seleka, some involving the slaying of children by slitting throats. In one brutal attack on April 15, 2013, the rights group recorded: “Seleka killed the 26-year-old wife and 18-month-old daughter of a truck driver, whose vehicle they wanted in order to transport stolen goods. A witness described how Seleka shot the baby in the head, before killing her mother as she approached the door to the family house.”
From its findings, HRW recommended that the United Nations Security Council should slap sanctions on all Seleka leaders.
In another atrocity reported in May 2014, Seleka militants killed 11 worshippers in a church in the capital Bangui, when it lobbed grenades into the building and sprayed the congregation with gunfire.
Seleka fighters take a break as they sit on a pick-up truck in the town of Goya June 11, 2014. © Goran Tomasevi / Reuters
Yet the Pentagon is now liaising with this same militia in its supposed mission to track down the warlord Joseph Kony and his ragtag army of bandits.
The Seleka are surely not the only lawless militia operating in the Central African Republic. The Christian anti-Balaka has carried out as many atrocities against the minority Muslim community in the country.
Interim-President Catherine Samba Panza, who had to return in haste from the recent UN General Assembly in New York because of the deteriorating situation at home, blamed elements of the deposed president Francois Bozizé of also orchestrating the violence. Bozizé, who is Christian, had previously availed of the patronage of former colonial power France, before he was kicked out of the country by the Seleka back in March 2013.
The point is that the tragedy unfolding in the Central African Republic illustrates how meddling by Western powers is serving to pour fuel on an explosive internecine conflict.
The dubious mission of US special forces in the jungles of Africa – allegedly to catch a warlord – is having the effect of aligning Washington in a festering civil war, and alongside elements whose hands are dripping with blood. The scene is being set for an even bloodier escalation. Washington’s involvement may so far appear to be a clandestine factor but it is no less incendiary.
It’s an incendiary role Washington repeatedly plays, as seen in other current conflicts, from Syria to Iraq to Ukraine.