On February 16th, the International Criminal Court (ICC) began a trial for war crimes of a former top Central African Republic football official and a militiaman nicknamed “Rambo”.
Ex-sports minister Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona was allegedly a senior leader of mainly Christian anti-Balaka militias as the country slid into civil war in 2013, while Alfred Yekatom, an MP, is accused of commanding them on the ground.
The anti-Balaka, which means anti-machete, formed as vigilante self-defence groups after mainly Muslim rebels called the Seleka stormed the capital and removed then-president Francois Bozize, a Christian.
“I don’t recognise myself in the charges brought against me, I am not guilty,” Ngaissona, 53, speaking through a coronavirus mask, told the court in The Hague when asked by the chief judge to enter a plea.
Yekatom, 46, gave a similar response, saying:
“I categorically state that these counts are not correct. I reject all the charges that you laid against me.”
The two men face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, torture, mutilation, persecution and the conscription of child soldiers from 2013 to 2014.
Ngaissona also faces charges of rape and attempted rape.
“This day is an important day for justice,” prosecutor Kweku Vanderpuye told the court.
“The crimes that are charged in this case… are shocking to the conscience and so arresting in scale, that they transgress the very nature of our humanity.”
Yekatom was extradited to The Hague in late 2018, after being arrested in the CAR for firing his gun in parliament.
Styling himself as Commander Rambo (after the one and only John Rambo from the book and movies) Yekatom led an anti-Balaka force of around 3,000 people including child soldiers, prosecutors claimed.
“He prepared, planned, and led them in crimes committed as a key part of the anti-Balaka’s widespread attack,” Vanderpuye said.
Meanwhile, in the CAR, there is little progress. Clashes with rebels are on-going and there are almost daily casualties.
Refugees are escaping the combat areas, and there appears to be no political solution in sight, so that the chaos can be somehow subdued.
The CAR is one of the world’s poorest countries despite its rich natural resources, with a history of unrest since independence from France, including the despotic rule of self-proclaimed emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the 1960s and 1970s.
Despite a 2019 peace deal, militia groups which emerged during the conflict were recently in control of around two-thirds of the country, and Touadera depends heavily on UN forces, as well as military personnel sent by Russia and Rwanda.
A counter-offensive has seen pro-government forces retake a series of towns from the rebels in recent days.
There are Russian specialists providing assistance to the CAR government forces.
- On February 16, clashes between the militants and the CAR forces were reported in the Bambari area. 18 people reportedly killed and 40 others were wounded
- UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has recommended adding thousands of additional security forces to the MINUSCA peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic
- On February 15, the militants abducted 5 people in Kadei near Cameroon border
- On February 17, the first civilian convoy of goods finally arrived in Bangui from Garoua-Boulai after nearly two months of blockade at the Cameroonian border
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