Three days of mourning have been called in the Central African Republic after 26 people were killed in an attack earlier this week. This is the latest episode in an increasing wave of violence in the country.
Those killed in the attack on July 7, 2014 were among thousands of civilians who had sought refuge at the Saint Joseph Catholic Church in the central region of Banguri. Gunman set fire to tents and opened fire, leaving 26 dead and 35 injured, according to new figures released by the local Red Cross. According to a witness from the African Union's peacekeeping force MISCA, the attackers were wearing military uniforms linked to the majority-Muslim rebel group Seleka.
Violence has also been increasing in other parts of the country. At least three people were killed in Kouki, near the city of Bossangoa, when armed men on motorbikes attacked the village. According to an eyewitness, the attackers shot at everyone who crossed their path before they drove away, leaving many people injured.
Around 140 kilometers (87 miles) further west, in Paoua, on the border with Chad, a grenade was thrown at a mosque where Muslims were praying. More than 30 people were injured, four of them seriously.
Attacks, mass shootings and hostage takings have been reported in the Mbres region in the center of the country by the news agency AFP. The anti-balaka militia attacked at least nine villages. Around 12,000 people have had to flee their homes.
Struggle for power
These examples show the degree of violence that continues to shake the Central African Republic (CAR) almost a year and a half after the coup against former president Francois Bozize in 2013.
The political conflict over state power and the disputes between different ethnic groups have developed across the country into religiously motivated fighting between Christians and Muslims. The conflict is led by two armed groups, the predominantly Muslim Seleka and the mainly Christian anti-balaka militias.
"The situation in the Central African Republic remains very unstable," says Paul-Simon Handy from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa. Handy is one of the experts who compiled a report on CAR for the UN. "There are not enough international relief forces in the area," he said. The soldiers from the French Sangaris operation and the African Union's MISCA troops were having to deal with a situation on a scale and of a complexity that were often underestimated.
Population in flight
Civilians are paying a high price for the conflict, Handy says. The UN's Senior Humanitarian Coordinator in the CAR, Claire Bourgeois, was shocked at the new wave of violence. "There are no words strong enough to condemn these attacks on civilians. They are unacceptable, " she said in a statement released the day after the attacks. "I appeal to anyone who is involved with this violence to respect the civil population and guarantee their safety."
The violence has led to a fresh surge in the number of refugees in the Central African Republic. According to the UN, at least 20,000 people in the Bambari region in the south of the country had already left their homes when the current wave of violence started at the beginning of June. Armed fighters from the anti-balaka militias and members of Seleka killed around 50 people, African peacekeeping troops reported.
Natural resources a curse
Until a few weeks ago, the violence between Christian and Muslim militias had not reached the Bambari region. At the end of April, the UN brought hundreds of Central African Muslims into the region, which until then had been populated almost exclusively by Christians. The UN hoped that this move would save the Muslims from the increasing violence in the capital, Bangui.
In Bangui itself the situation has calmed down slightly, according to UN reports. Yet here alone, there are around 110,000 internally displaced persons. Almost 150,000 Central Africans have fled to neighboring states to escape the violence, in total more than 370,000 refugees are living abroad.
For Central Africa expert Handy, the country's wealth of natural resources has become a curse. "The armed groups are controlling areas that are particularly rich in natural resources. They are substantially financed through the illegal export of these resources, especially gold and diamonds," he said in an interview with DW.
Those responsible for the opposing militias Seleka and anti-balaka are repeatedly distancing themselves from attacks and violence. Some of their representatives are officially members of the interim government, which is supporting peace. Seleka frequently claim the attacks are the work of "uncontrollable elements," while anti-balaka leaders blame criminals or escaped prisoners.
"There are politicians who pay people to commit crimes in anti-balaka's name, " says Sylvestre Yagouzou, who describes himself as anti-balaka's co-ordinator of military affairs. But he does not want to dissolve the group. "We are not a militia. We formed to defend our homeland. Why should we break up? The Seleka are still in the country," he said.
Yagouzou told DW that the group is planning to become a political party. "We will form an organization that restores peace to the Central African Republic," he said. "And because people don't want to hear the name anti-balaka, we will give ourselves a new name."