BANGUI/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The interim president of Central African Republic Catherine Samba-Panza left the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Monday to return home due to the worst violence in the capital of her country this year, two Western diplomats said.
Around 30 people have been killed and dozens more injured in three days of inter-communal clashes in Bangui, a city secured by United Nations and French peacekeepers. The violence has sparked fears that Samba-Panza could be overthrown.
“She left (New York) to go back to Central Africa because of the security situation,” a diplomat told Reuters.
Earlier, hundreds of prisoners escaped from the main jail in the capital and U.N. peacekeepers fired warning shots to disperse thousands of protesters calling for the rearming of the army. At least one person was killed.
“There is no one in the prison,” said a senior gendarmerie source, referring to the Ngaraba jail.
The clashes began on Saturday when the murder of a Muslim man sparked reprisals by Muslims on a Christian neighbourhood and attacks by armed gangs on civilians.
Gunshots rang out on Monday night despite a curfew. Few ventured out during the day and anti-balaka Christian militia manned checkpoints.
Thousands marched to within 100 metres (300 feet) of the presidential palace to call for a bigger role for the army.
The army was sidelined when mostly Muslim northern rebels, known as Seleka, seized power in 2013. A U.N.-backed interim government is yet to rearm the army after officers were linked to the anti-balaka that conducted reprisals against Muslims.
Samba-Panza’s absence due to the meeting in New York and that of other leaders and senior U.N. officials with the MINUSCA peacekeeping force is one reason why the violence erupted, said a Western diplomat, adding that U.N. forces had not reacted quickly enough.
The U.S. State Department condemned the violence in a statement that expressed support for Samba-Panza and her transitional government.
Overnight, the police headquarters was attacked by the anti-balaka and two gendarmes were injured, the police deputy director said.
U.N. interim humanitarian coordinator Marc Vandenberghe said he was “extremely worried” by the loss of life.
A Reuters journalist saw a young man’s corpse in the street on Monday. Witnesses said he was killed by anti-balaka forces.
Red Cross officials say a death toll was hard to establish as they have been prevented from entering neighbourhoods by protesters and armed groups.
Private residences and offices for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and a medical charity were pillaged Sunday afternoon, according to a Reuters witness.
UNICEF said children were targeted, citing the murders of three boys aged 16 and 17, including one who was decapitated.
The country erupted in violence after Seleka rebels seized power in the majority-Christian country in 2013, killing thousands and leaving hundreds of thousands still displaced.
It has been led by a transitional government since January 2014, and was expected to vote in presidential polls scheduled for Oct. 18 but now widely expected to be postponed.
Additional reporting by John Irish at the United Nations, Makini Brice in Dakar and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Alan Crosby and Lisa Shumaker