Originally published in World Watch Monitor
A member of a religious order and a French aid worker were kidnapped at gunpoint Jan. 19 in the capital of the Central African Republic.
One of the victims, a man identified as Gustave, is a member of the congregation of Holy Spirit who works at CODIS, a diocesan service that is active in health care and education in Central African Republic. The other, aid worker Claudia Priest, 67, is a French national who arrived in Bangui, the capital, on Jan. 6. Priest runs a small charity organization, and has been travelling to CAR on a regular basis since 2005. She was preparing to return to France on January 20.
The kidnapping took place January 19 at about 8 am near a Protestant church in the 4th arrondissement, or district, of Bangui.
According to local sources who spoke to World Watch Monitor, Priest and Gustave were in a car loaded with medicine along with another member of the congregation of the Holy Spirit, a man identified as Elkana. They were returning from a trip to Damara, 70 kilometres north of Bangui.
Who are the anti-balaka?
The Central African Republic has been wracked by violence since December 2012, when a coalition of Muslim-dominated rebel groups under the Séléka banner moved through the country to eventually drive out President Francois Bozizé in March 2013. What followed was 10 months of Séléka violence, much of it directed at Christians, thousands of whom were killed and driven from their homes.
Séléka leader Michel Djotodia took control of a transitional government, but lost control of Séléka soldiers. In December 2013, the UN Security Council authorised the expansion of the African and French military forces then attempting to maintain security in the CAR, and started planning for the possible conversion of those forces to a UN-managed peacekeeping operation. By January 2014, a new president had replaced Djotodia, the Séléka coalition had been disbanded, and was being pursued by violent vigilante groups known as the anti-Balaka.
Since December 2013, the anti-Balaka have waged a revenge campaign of ethnic cleansing in the west of CAR, as Séléka remnants have retreated to the northeast. Many hundreds of Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, have been killed, and tens of thousands have fled.
As they arrived at the entrance of the church, they were intercepted by four men, armed with guns and who ordered the three to get out of the vehicle. Their phones, money and other personal belongings were confiscated.
The car’s driver, Elkana, managed to flee while Gustave and Priest were taken hostage.
The two were taken to the Boy Rab area, known as the stronghold of anti-Balaka militias in Bangui. Their vehicle and all loaded inside were taken away.
The kidnappers demanded the release of one of their leaders, Rodrigue Ngaïbona, known as “General Andjilo,” who was arrested on Jan. 18 by United Nations peacekeeping forces, in exchange for the release of the two hostages.
Ngaibona is accused of being responsible for the massacre of civilians, notably during the failed offensive led by anti-balaka militias in Bangui, in December 2013.
Negotiations aimed at obtaining the release of the two hostages and the return of their vehicle and its contents are led by the Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonné Nzapalainga, and Rev. Nicolas Guérékoyamé Gbangou, the President of Evangelical Alliance in CAR. The two top clerics are members of the Muslims and Christians Platform in CAR.
The French government has confirmed the kidnapping of the French aid worker, and called it ”an act contrary to humanitarian law.’’
The abduction of foreign nationals by armed groups is recurrent in this war-torn central Africa country. Also on Jan. 20, a humanitarian aid worker on the UN staff was kidnapped by a group of armed men in Bangui. She was abducted while driving to work, but was released a few hours later.
In October, a Polish priest was abducted by eight members of a rebel group called the Democratic Front of the Central African People, in the extreme west of the country, near the Cameroon border. Rev. Mateusz Dziedzic, of the diocese of Tarnow, in Baboua, was released weeks later in exchange for a Democratic Front leader, Abdoulaye Miskine, who had been imprisoned in Cameroon.