April 19, 2015 / 4:13 PM / 2 years ago

U.N. frees 21 herders enslaved by militia in Central African Republic

BANGUI (Reuters) - U.N. peacekeepers have liberated some 21 nomadic Muslim herders, most of them women and children, enslaved by militia groups in the west of Central African Republic, though up to 100 more remain in captivity, a U.N. official said on Sunday.

The herders, from the Fulani ethnic group, were captured about a year ago near the town of Yaloke during religious violence unleashed after Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the majority Christian country in 2013, provoking a backlash from local militia groups.

A spokeswoman for the U.N. refugees agency (UNHCR) said the two men, six women and 13 children had been freed after negotiations involving the U.N. peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) and local authorities.

"Three of the six women were raped and are in a state of shock, totally traumatized," said Dalia Alachi, spokeswoman for UNHCR.

"They spoke to us about torture, gang rape, forced labor. These people are now receiving medical treatment and psycho-social support," she said.

Based on information from local surveillance committees, UNHCR estimates that roughly 100 people remain in captivity in the same region.

The liberated people were transferred to Yaloke, some 300 km (190 miles) northwest of the capital Bangui, where an enclave of more than 400 Fulani exists under U.N. protection.

The Fulani in Yaloke had sought shelter more than a year ago after they were hunted through the bush by the 'anti-balaka' Christian militia, which killed more than 50 of the herders and stole their cattle.

Despite an improving situation in some towns of Central African Republic, Alachi said simmering violence persisted in rural areas, with most of the abuses going undocumented.

Reporting by Crispin Dembassa-Kette and Anthony Foucher; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Gareth Jones

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