Conflicting reports emerged from Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), on Monday after overnight clashes in an apparent military coup attempt against the government of President Ange-Felix Patasse.
A government statement issued on Monday stated that the regular army was in control after an “unsuccessful coup attempt”, news organisations said. An NGO source in Bangui told IRIN that the situation remained “confused”, with national radio off the air following the destruction of its transmitter by rebel soldiers. However, the source added that the city centre was calm and under the control of forces loyal to Patasse.
Heavy gunfire and mortar fire was reported to have broken out in the early hours of the morning around the home of President Patasse and near Bangui airport. It tapered off after about two hours, but sporadic gunfire was heard until midday in the southern part of Bangui, to where a rebellious army unit blamed for the attack had retreated. As the rebels pulled back to the city’s southern neighbourhoods - an area renowned as an opposition stronghold - they seized the area’s radio transmitter, sources in Bangui said. The army sealed off the city centre and tanks protected the president’s home, the national radio building, and the airport.
Patasse escaped injury in the attack even though some shells landed within the walls of his compound, a military official told the Associated Press.
The president remained in his villa, under heavy guard by loyalist soldiers. At least seven presidential security guards were reportedly killed, with “many dead among the attackers”, the government statement said. Civilians, frightened by hours of heavy fire, stayed off the streets. No buses or taxis were operating, and schools and shops remained closed, although the power supply was reportedly unaffected.
Patasse, who has ruled the CAR since 1993, has been accused in the past of mismanaging the nation. In riots last December, demonstrators called for him to stand down. Civil servants have been on sporadic strike for months to protest against the government’s failure to pay up to two years of salary arrears. To date, most wages remain unpaid despite a government promise in March to start paying them and the appointment last month of new Prime Minister Martin Ziguele, who said official salaries would be his priority.
The landlocked and impoverished CAR, one of the world’s poorest countries despite its diamond mines, has never completely recovered from the mutinies in the 1990s, launched when soldiers were not paid. Last year, the UN ended a peacekeeping mission it sent in 1999 to replace the French-backed African force which restored order after the mutinies in the 1990s, but UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned in January that peace was in danger.
CAR has also suffered as a result of the war in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), from where more than 8,000 refugees have fled since 1998, to live in deplorable conditions. Life expectancy in CAR for men is only 46 and for women