A week after a coup attempt was launched by mutinous soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR) capital of Bangui, troops loyal to President Ange-Felix Patasse were back in control of most of the city, according to various reports on Monday.
Sources in Bangui told IRIN that with the assistance of soldiers sent in from Libya, Chad, and the rebel Mouvement pour la liberation du Congo (MLC) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the mutinous soldiers who had retreated to the southern and eastern neighbourhoods of the capital were essentially surrounded, with no hope of escape other than surrender or political negotiation. The mutineers were reported to be receiving the support of some 300 Rwandan and Angolan mercenaries.
The exodus of thousands of civilians fleeing Bangui was continuing, particularly from the southern neighbourhoods as loyalist soldiers moved in and shot suspected rebels who had retreated and gone into hiding in residential districts. Military sources said many of the mutineers had discarded their army uniforms and were fighting in civilian clothes, AP reported.
Meanwhile, the whereabouts of coup leader and former president General Andre Kolingba were unknown. Last week, Kolingba acknowledged having had an “advisory” role in events, but insisted that the rebel offensive was a “healthy intervention” rather than a coup attempt. Rumours of his capture or death set off celebrations in the streets of Bangui on Sunday, which were still strewn with dozens of corpses. Last week’s estimates of 20 deaths were expected to rise well above 100 as access was regained to various districts.
On Friday, Patasse filed insurrection and murder charges against Kolingba, who was demoted to the rank of private. Other officers blamed for the coup were named as Brig. Gen. Guillaume Lucien Ndjengbot, Col.
Maurice Gamba, Lt. Col. Guy Serge Kolingba (a son of the former president), Maj. Anicet Saulet and Capt. Guy-Jose Gailloty. All were stripped of their rank, decorations and military pensions.
The week-long battle took a significant turn in favour of government forces on Friday when a major offensive was unleashed in a successful effort to recapture Camp Kassai, the main army barracks in eastern Bangui that had been one of the last remaining strongholds of the mutinous soldiers.
IRIN received widespread reports of attacks and executions of civilians, which were confirmed by an NGO source on the ground, as well as by reports aired by Radio France Internationale (RFI) and local independent radio Ndeke Luka. Military sources said most of those killed so far were Yakoma, the same ethnic group to which Kolingba belongs. Patasse is from one of the Sara ethnic groups of the northern savannah of the CAR.
The authorities have apologised for the army’s conduct. “We regret the fact that the army has reacted so violently against innocent civilians during the mopping up operations ... but we are really in a state of war for the time being,” AP reported presidential spokesman Prosper Ndouba as saying.
There were also widespread reports of ransacking and pillage by Jean-Pierre Bemba’s MLC troops, who were said to be moving goods en masse across the Oubangui River to their bases in northern DRC. An RFI correspondent in Bangui reported that “the Congolese beat up people who did not flee - often women, blew house gates apart with grenades, and plundered and destroyed things. In short, as an inhabitant said a few minutes ago, it is just as if someone had told them to help themselves.”
France, the former colonial power, held discussions with the CAR protagonists on Friday but has not undertaken any mediation between Patasse and the coup leaders, said French foreign ministry spokeswoman Laurence Auer. On Saturday, at least one mortar shell was reported to have exploded near the residence of the French ambassador where hundreds of Bangui residents sought refuge.