With the world’s attention focused on events in Syria and Crimea, it is easy to see why the escalating violence in the Central African Republic might not seem a pressing priority for Western policymakers. Yet the conflict between Christians and Muslims in the former French colony raises the prospect of another Rwandan-style genocide taking place on the African continent.
To date, thousands have died in bitter fighting fuelled by long-standing tensions. In recent weeks, Muslim communities have borne the brunt of the violence, inflicted by Christian militias determined to prevent the country falling under the control of Islamist hardliners, who claim their ultimate ambition is to impose sharia.
In one of the worst atrocities, Amnesty International reports the massacre of a bus full of Muslims, killed with machetes and knives by Christian rebels outside a mosque about 80 miles north of Bangui, the capital. Not surprisingly, the violence has resulted in an estimated 1.3 million people – about one quarter of the country’s population – fleeing to neighbouring Chad and Cameroon.
Amid fears that Christian militias are engaging in ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population, it is clear the 7,000-strong French-led international security force is in urgent need of reinforcements. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has authorised the deployment of 12,000 peacekeepers to halt the killing, but his officials say this could take up to six months, because of the many other demands on their limited resources.
This is clearly unacceptable. If the UN wants to avoid having another bloodbath on its hands, then donor nations must be persuaded as a matter of urgency to provide the required troops, in order to prevent the country descending into all-out war.