African peacekeepers fired into a crowd of protesters in the capital of the Central African Republic on Monday, killing one person and injuring around 40 more, in a shooting set to escalate tensions in the strife-torn country.
The Chadian soldiers, part of a UN-mandated force, opened fire on stone-throwing protesters outside Bangui airport who accused them of complicity with rebels who have been terrorising the population, according to AFP reporters on the scene.
But the Chadian government categorically denied the report.
“No Chadian soldier fired on demonstrators,” Communication Minister Hassan Sylla Bakari said in a statement to AFP.
“This report is a fabrication by certain media” who want to vilify Chadian peacekeepers, he said, accusing the media of “fanning hatred between two brother peoples (Chadian and Central African) who have always lived together peacefully.”
Several hundred Christian demonstrators had massed to call for the departure of President Michel Djotodia, a former rebel who became the first Muslim leader of the majority Christian nation after a March coup that unleashed the current wave of sectarian violence.
They were also demanding the departure of the Chadian troops within the 3,700-strong African Union’s MISCA force which, alongside French forces, is battling to restore order in the volatile country.
Demonstrators started throwing rocks at two 4X4 vehicles with AU troops from Chad, who responded by firing their weapons in the air and towards the crowd, shooting one person dead, according to AFP reporters.
French troops quickly intervened to evacuate the victims.
Around 40 injured people — three in a serious condition — were transferred to a field hospital set up by Doctors without Borders (MSF) at the airport, said the aid group’s on-site coordinator Lindis Hurum.
“I came to see the demonstration and I got shot in the leg,” said one of the injured, who gave his name as Ludovic.
Many in mostly Christian Bangui accuse Chad — whose President Idriss Deby Itno has long been kingmaker in the country — of masterminding the Seleka rebellion behind the March coup.
Djotodia has officially disbanded Seleka but some of its members went rogue, leading to months of killing, raping and pillaging — and prompting Christians to form vigilante groups in response.
Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries within Seleka are blamed for many of the worst crimes against the population.
“We ask for our rights and we get killed. There are too many abuses, we can’t take it any more,” charged one demonstrator after the incident. “The Chadians are terrorists.”
“They are killing us like animals,” said another distraught young woman. “We don’t want these Chadian MISCA troops.”
Presidential guards ‘killed in cold blood’
In Paris the foreign ministry called for light to be shed on the shooting, while saying Deby was “an essential partner” who “has the full confidence of France.”
But France’s own 1,600 troops in the country were under the spotlight after a weekend incident in which three former rebels were shot dead in the capital.
The French army said its troops opened fire in Bangui on Sunday against “a group of half-a-dozen people suspected of being ex-Seleka” and who “were preparing to use their weapons”.
But the CAR presidency said on Monday that the three were “members of the presidential guard”, whose shooting was unprovoked.
“They were killed in cold blood by members of Sangaris,” presidential spokesman Guy Simplice Kodegue told AFP using the codename of the French force.
“This was not a disarmament operation and no shots were fired, contrary to what was reported in certain French media,” Kodegue added.
“It was deliberate,” he charged. “They were shot dead despite having shown their badges and papers proving their mandate.”
The French intervention to disarm fighters in the impoverished landlocked country has been largely welcomed by the Christian majority but many Muslims argue that operations against the remnants of Seleka have left them vulnerable to reprisals.
On Sunday several thousand Muslim supporters of Seleka protested in Bangui against the French troops.
Amnesty International says some 1,000 people have been killed since December 5, mostly by Muslim ex-rebels but also in Christian reprisal attacks, targeting Muslims, people from the country’s north and Chadian nationals, along with all seen as complicit with Seleka.