The government of the Central African Republic has called on residents in the capital Bangui to lay down any weapons and wait for a demobilisation programme. It has also announced it is discussing a plan to send anti-balaka combatants who came to Bangui from rural areas back home.
But African Union and French military leaders are skeptical of tentative plans that might involve moving the anti-balaka into cantonments.
The defence minister Theophile Timangoa asked people in Bangui in a statement on 18 March "to lay down your arms unconditionally and wait for the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme."
And on 12 March another government minister Gaston Mackouzangda told IRIN that some anti-balaka from rural areas “are ready to leave” the capital, and the government wants to help them return to their villages.
“They have raised the problem of how they can go back to work in the fields,” he said. “They need transport, and they also need agricultural material, although not machetes. The government is discussing this and is willing to find a solution for them.”
“They need transport, and they also need agricultural material, although not machetes. The government is discussing this and is willing to find a solution for them,” he added.
The anti-balaka (Sango for “machete-proof”, the term also means “bullet-proof” ) are self-defence units formed to counter the Seleka alliance of predominantly Muslim rebel groups which ousted President Francois Bozizé in March 2013. Widespread atrocities have been attributed to both groups. The anti-balaka stormed Bangui, in early December. Since then all but a few thousand of the 130,000 Muslims who once lived in the capital have fled.
One anti-balaka leader, Joachim Kokate, who now advises the new interim government, said of the group: “We are going to find a site where they can be grouped, and then send them on their way.”
“I can’t say how many they will be, but a registration is under way in each zone [of the capital],” he said.
Some kind of inducement may be required, judging by the sentiments of some anti-balaka now staying in rudimentary conditions in the outskirts of Bangui.
One man said he hoped for some kind of “recompense” for “liberating” Bangui from the Seleka.
“The Seleka killed my father and stole our 40 cattle,” he said. “That’s why I joined the anti-balaka. If the government could put us in a camp, and make a symbolic gesture towards us, I could go back to my farm.”
One of his comrades, who said the Seleka had disembowelled his pregnant sister, destroyed his house and stolen his canoe, suggested money for a new canoe and a fishing net might be a sufficient demobilization package.
A young woman, who said the Seleka had killed her husband because he was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Bozizé, told IRIN she was hoping the government would help her restart her business selling wigs.
But the government has little money to spend on demobilization or reintegration packages, and the donors it depends on may be unwilling to contribute anything at all to elements regarded as outlaws.
“Liberators of nothing”
Local radio reports attribute robberies and break-ins to the anti-balaka almost on a daily basis.
The head of the African Union (AU) military contingent in CAR, Gen Simon Martin Tumenta, described them in a recent press conference as “brigands and terrorists” who, unlike the Seleka, never kept their word.
For Gen Francisco Soriano, commander of Sangaris, the French peacekeeping mission in CAR, the anti-balaka “are liberators of nothing”. There is therefore no basis, he said, for transferring them to camps pending their return home.
Seleka fighters, on the other hand, are currently in camps overseen by international peacekeepers. Soriano said this had been possible because “we know who they are. But who are the anti-balaka? Who is in charge of them?”
“You have a chief who announces he has 25,000 under his command and another who announces he has 30,000. Where are we going to put 55,000 people? And if we put them in camps we become responsible for them - for protection, feeding, medical care and ensuring they have a future in the country?”
While Kokate, who describes himself as a “military coordinator” is said to be willing to have the government take charge of fighters under his command, a rival anti-balaka leader Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona - the subject of an arrest warrant - has by some accounts conditioned his men’s compliance on Bozizé’s return to the presidency.
Mackouzangda, the minister, noted that determining exactly who should benefit from any demobilization procedure will be difficult as “nearly everyone says they are anti-balaka.”
The numbers of such potential beneficiaries are therefore almost impossible to determine. One local journalist ventured that there were fewer than 1,000 anti-balaka from rural areas currently in Bangui.
Earlier this month, firefights broke out in the western town of Berberati when AU peacekeepers and CAR police tried to disarm anti-balaka there. Since then, there has been a stand-off, with anti-balaka reinforcements reportedly sent by Ngaissona, but under orders not to confront the AU troops.
After visiting Berberati at the head of a delegation of UN agencies, Kouassi Lazare Etien, interim humanitarian coordinator in the country, said: “Normally, for a disarmament to succeed the armed group needs to be put in camps. In my view a decision needs to be taken at a high level on the possibility for the anti-balaka to be regrouped so that they can be disarmed.”
One difficulty with disarming and demobilizing the anti-balaka in the current context will be their close links with the CAR armed forces. By some estimates most of the latter (whose number is put at up to 8,000) are also anti-balaka.
International Crisis Group’s Central Africa researcher Thierry Vircoulon told IRIN that there was a risk of the anti-balaka developing into Congolese style Mai-Mai militias, preying on the population often in collaboration with national security forces.
*This report was amended on 20 March to add the government's call for weapons to be laid down, and to correct that a few thousand, rather than a few hundred, Muslims remain in Bangui.