(Updates with fresh information from ICRC)
LONDON (AlertNet) - Humanitarian officials have called for an end to looting in Central African Republic (CAR) after United Nations and aid groups’ premises were robbed and damaged during a coup by rebel forces who seized power in the capital Bangui on Sunday.
The deterioration in security led some international agencies to withdraw foreign staff to Cameroon at the weekend. Conditions are calmer now, but the situation remains precarious, according to the country head for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Amy Martin.
She urged the leadership of the Seleka rebel coalition to ensure its fighters respect human rights and international humanitarian law, so that citizens are protected from violence and aid can be delivered. Commanders also need to stop any further looting, she added.
"They have to get a control on the security," she told AlertNet from Bangui. "If they can't control the security, it's going to make it that much more difficult, because every time we do something, someone will come in behind us and take what we've done."
The warehouses of the U.N. World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Bangui were not raided, she added. But some stocks have been looted from the warehouse of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the offices and facilities of many other aid agencies have been pillaged, and vehicles stolen.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said its supplies and staff residences had suffered looting, and called for it to cease.
Rebel forces have been blamed for many of the attacks, but they are pointing the finger at armed civilians, who they say are responsible for ongoing theft.
The United Nations and the African Union have condemned the rebel takeover, which followed the collapse of the January peace deal signed after a previous rebel advance to the gates of the capital in December.
Martin said it was too early to tell whether the rebels would support a peaceful transition to a new government, but the after-effects of the coup would make life harder for the capital's already impoverished residents.
"The population here is very poor - they live on less than $1 to $1.50 a day - so the crisis is going to be felt here in Bangui," she said.
Neighbourhood markets and small vendors are operating again, but businesses and schools remain closed. The immediate priorities are to re-establish electricity and water supplies, which were cut off at the weekend, and to get enough fuel to hospitals to run their generators, Martin said.
On Thursday, the ICRC described the situation in Bangui's Community Hospital as "catastrophic", with injured people filling the corridors and staff no longer able to cope with emergencies.
Nearly 200 people wounded in clashes have been admitted to the city's main hospitals, including around 40 who are still awaiting emergency surgery. New patients cannot be accepted due to a shortage of medicines, the ICRC said.
AID ASSESSMENTS BEGIN
The U.N. and other aid agencies have started assessing the humanitarian needs in the capital, particularly healthcare, as they are able to move around in some areas, and similar evaluations should begin in other parts of the country next week, Martin said. Meanwhile, most international groups are trying to provide services as best they can across CAR.
International Medical Corps said rebel blockades and the poor state of roads in and around Bangui were impeding the delivery of essential supplies to areas outside the capital that were already hard to reach. Food insecurity may increase as stocks run low, it added.
OCHA's Martin also urged Seleka - with which her office is in regular contact - to guarantee security on the road network to allow aid convoys to move safely. The border with Cameroon is currently closed, and this could lead to severe problems if it hampers the delivery of humanitarian goods and fuel to landlocked CAR, she said.
Northern areas of CAR urgently require seeds, to make sure crops are planted before the rainy season sets in in May. Without seeds, a food crisis could emerge in the autumn, Martin said.
More than 80,000 people in the north and centre of the country already need food assistance to get them through the "lean season" before the harvest, OCHA said on Thursday.
UNICEF has warned that the lives of 600,000 children are being seriously affected by the ongoing conflict, with at least 166,000 denied education because schools are closed and teachers absent.
Even before the coup, around 13,500 children were expected to suffer from life-threatening malnutrition this year, and in the past three months, basic health, nutrition and education services have been disrupted in many communities in rebel-controlled areas, the U.N. agency said.
THOUSANDS FLEE TO DRC
Neighbouring countries are affected too. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said an estimated 5,000 people have fled to safety in Democratic Republic of Congo since Sunday, many of them children, adding to the 22,000 CAR refugees who moved there over the past year. Many are living in "dire conditions" on the banks of the Ubangi river and surviving on river fish, IFRC said.
The United Nations is revising its humanitarian response plan to take into account extra needs arising from the latest crisis. On March 18, it appealed to donors for $129 million for aid activities in CAR, of which around 18 percent has been covered so far. But the recent looting means many aid agencies will have to rebuild their activities from zero.
Martin said that, before the first rebel advance on Bangui at the end of last year, the outlook had been more positive, with fewer people displaced by conflict, refugees returning home and stability increasing.
"We were more on a development track, a recovery track, but that has just been completely flipped over now," she said. "We are back to an emergency footing - pure emergency."