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Published: Wednesday February 26, 2014 MYT 2:31:10 AM
Updated: Wednesday February 26, 2014 MYT 2:32:31 AM

Armed groups surround thousands in Central African Republic - U.N

BANGUI (Reuters) - Over 15,000 people in Central African Republic, mostly Muslim civilians in makeshift camps, are surrounded and being threatened by armed militia groups, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday.

Adrian Edwards told a news briefing in Geneva that the refugees, dotted around 18 locations in the northwest and southwest of the landlocked country, face a high risk of attack and urgently need better security.

France's parliament was due to vote on Tuesday on extending its military mission in Central African Republic, known as Sangaris, four months after its launch.

The former French colony has been torn by inter-communal violence that has killed thousands since Seleka, a coalition of mostly Muslim northern rebels, seized power in March and unleashed a wave of looting and killings.

Christian militia known as "anti-balaka", which means "anti-machete" in the local sango language, have exacted brutal reprisals against the Muslim minority whom they accuse of supporting the rebels. Ten of thousands of Muslims have fled to neighbouring countries, while others sought shelter in camps.

"Although violence has hit all communities in CAR, most of the people who are trapped are Muslims under threat from 'anti-balaka' militiamen," Edwards said. "Areas we are particularly worried about include the PK12 neighbourhood in Bangui and the towns of Boda, Boar and Bossangoa."

Tit-for-tat killings have continued despite the presence of 2,000 French and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers (MISCA). Aid workers say security has improved somewhat in the capital Bangui in recent weeks, though sporadic attacks continue.

Burundian peacekeepers shot dead two anti-balaka fighters who were looting a shop in Bangui on Tuesday, witnesses said.

In Carnot, a town of about 45,000 some 500 km (310 miles) northwest of the capital, Muslims sought protection at a local church after hiding in the bush for several days.

Priest Justine Nary said that over 1,000 people, many of them women and children, had sought refuge in Carnot's church.

Nary said the mood was tense after anti-balaka militia threatened to torch the building if Muslims did not leave, despite the presence of AU and French troops.

"We received 223 more people this morning and the truck has gone out again to fetch more people from the bush where they are hiding," he said.

FRENCH VOTE

The crisis has driven around 1 million people - about a quarter of the country's population - from their homes. Many of them have fled to neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo.

The World Food Programme warned on Tuesday that the exodus could spark a regional crisis as countries struggled to accommodate the refugees.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he expected parliament to approve extending the Sangaris mission, which he said would soon receive support from a 1,000-strong EU mission.

"If it hadn't been for Sangaris, CAR would be in a genocide situation today," he told France 2.

Several opposition lawmakers have already accused French President Francois Hollande of miscalculating the situation in Central African Republic, demanding to know how long French troops will stay and the cost of the mission.

"I'm tempted to vote against keeping our forces there unless the government gives clear commitments," said Pierre Lellouche, opposition lawmaker and member of the foreign affairs committee. The mission had been based on poor military intelligence, he said.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Bate Felix in Dakar; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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