A war crime of terrible proportions has been carried out in Africa – and hardly anyone noticed.
Almost unreported by the media, a three-day operation by French paratroops in support of Central African Republic (CAR) government forces last month left a town devastated.
Many of those driven from their homes were so desperate they fled to refugee camps in Darfur.
Imagine how frightened you would have to be to think that Darfur was a happier prospect.
Some 14,000 people lived in the town of Birao before the attack by French and CAR government forces began. That has been reduced to 600.
There is no doubt about the level of destruction.
United Nations (UN) humanitarian coordinator Toby Lanzer, who led a mission to Birao, expressed his shock at the scene. He said, “Never before has the UN seen a town in Central African Republic where 70 percent of houses have been torched. The impact of this on people’s lives cannot be exaggerated.”
A UN official told the Independent, “It was like Grozny in Chechnya or parts of Mogadishu.”
Certainly hundreds of people have died, and maybe thousands. But arguments rage about who was responsible.
Gerard Errera, French ambassador to Britain, says, “Eighteen French soldiers who were engaged in a mission providing the Central African Republic’s armed forces with military training and advice were violently attacked by rebels claiming to be from the Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement (UFDR).
“The French soldiers acted in legitimate defence.”
Perhaps they had to destroy Birao in order to save it.
The French troops most probably did not destroy the town. But CAR government troops did – while the French protected them. And it was not just “18 soldiers” who were there.
The French assistance included air support from helicopters and jets. France plays a crucial role in CAR’s military and advises on the entire strategy against the rebel UFDR.
When CAR president François Bozizé took power in 2003 his militias committed crimes against the civilian population, as exposed by the International Federation for Human Rights.
The rebels opposing Bozizé are no better, indeed their leaders are his former supporters who participated in the coup against the former president.
The CAR has rich reserves of diamonds, uranium and tropical wood. It is in a strategic position next to Sudan and Chad (both of which are important oil producers) and the two Congos.
Birao’s people are further victims of the new scramble for Africa that has merged with the “war on terror” to bring further destabilisation to the continent – and horror for millions more people.