GENEVA – Warring militias have enlisted up to 6,000 child soldiers in the Central African Republic, a senior U.N. official said Friday, issuing a stark warning about the country’s spiralling crisis.
“Roughly today, we’re talking about 5,000-6,000 children, so the number has roughly doubled from our previous estimate,” made in March, said Souleymane Diabate, UNICEF’s representative in the country.
The U.N. children’s agency has repeatedly sounded the alarm about the way in which youngsters are being forced into the arms of a raft of groups in the conflict-ravaged nation.
The European Union added its voice Friday, expressing “very deep concern at the alarming situation” and the prospect that the crisis could worsen if communal and religious conflicts get out of hand.
“We are alarmed by the widespread violations of human rights which go unpunished and affect the whole population,” a spokesman for EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton said in Brussels.
The country has been plagued by instability since a coup by Seleka rebels, a coalition that ousted longtime President Francois Bozize in March.
A Seleka leader, Michel Djotodia, named himself president but agreed to hold elections next year after a political transition.
Djotodia announced Friday he had renewed a curfew in Bangui, the capital, because of a surge in armed crime, after a similar measure was lifted last month.
The president has officially disbanded the rebel force but its fighters have continued to stage attacks and robberies.
Violence in the city culminated on Nov. 17 with the murder of a leading judge, provoking clashes in which two civilians died.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 people, led by lawyers and judges, demonstrated in the capital’s streets Friday to protest against the murder.
And outside the capital armed gangs now dominate, mainly former Seleka loyalists.
Rival self-defense militias formed to protect local communities have been infiltrated by members of Bozize’s former presidential guards who have armed them with heavy weapons, raising the stakes, Diabate said.
The Central African Republic is 80 percent Christian, but the rebels emerged from the Muslim minority clustered in the north near the borders of Chad and Sudan.
As clashes take on an increasingly ethnic and religious nature in the nation of 5 million people, aid officials and foreign governments are raising the specter of genocide.
“The situation we face in the Central African Republic will be very, very serious if the international community doesn’t mobilize to stem it,” warned Diabate, in the wake of similar statements from U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.
France’s top diplomat, Laurent Fabius, said Thursday that the country, a former French colony, was “on the verge of genocide,” while Robert Jackson, a deputy to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, told Washington’s lawmakers this week that it was in a “pre-genocidal” phase.
On top of the violence, a humanitarian crisis is growing in what was already one of the poorest countries in the world, where conflict and misrule have hampered the development of considerable gold, diamond and uranium resources.
“What is going on right now in the Central African Republic is tragic. We’re talking about 4.6 million people affected by the crisis,” said Diabate.
“Half of this population is less than 18 years old. And before the crisis, the situation was not good at all, and it has worsened since,” he added.
African nations have deployed some 2,500 troops to the country in a peacekeeping force which is due to increase to 4,500 strong, but diplomats and many officials say it cannot cope with the anarchy and that U.N. peacekeepers may be needed.