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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Violence and chaos are gripping the Central African Republic. Some are even warning of genocide there. The violence traces back to a coup led by a Muslim group, the Seleca rebels. Many of them have since gone rouge, targeting Christians who are now forming their own militias.
INSKEEP: Today, the U.N. Security Council meets to discuss sending in a French-led peacekeeping force. Earlier, we reached David Smith of Britain's Guardian newspaper in Johannesburg. And I should warn you that our conversation contains graphic and violent details. Smith is just back from the Central African Republic. He's written about this conflict as a, quote, "massacre of the innocents."
DAVID SMITH: That phrase occurred to me one morning as I was in the midst of some very harrowing interviews with victims of violence. Among them was a woman with a baby girl tied to her back. She said this is not my baby, so we asked her to explain, and she said that the previous day her neighbor, who was the mother of the baby had come seeking medical treatment for the baby. And had basically just crossed an imaginary, arbitrary line drawn in the sand by the Seleca rebels. And her punishment was to be hacked to death with a Kalashnikov, and the baby just discarded on the ground. And sometime later the woman who we were talking to had found the baby and was now going to look after it and care for it as of her own.
And this was just one story among many of very gruesome killings. A man whose son had his throat slit. Some men who said they were tied up, beaten and thrown in a river full of crocodiles. It really did feel like a massacre of the innocents is happening.
GREENE: Some of the most savage stories that you told were actually - involved children being targets.
SMITH: That's right. Children both as victims and indeed being recruited as child soldiers. There was an instance, a man at the Catholic mission in Bossangoa who said that some of the Seleca rebels tried to shoot his son who was 4 years old. And apparently the gun jammed, so they slit his throat instead. I think also (unintelligible) the U.N. said that now there's around an estimated 6,000 children who are actually being press-ganged into fighting on one side or the other. Human Rights Watch talked about spotting an 8-year-old who was armed and when they asked his commander why do you use children, the commander replied, you know, they don't have the same fear as adults. Children tend to think they'll be invincible.
GREENE: We should say that this country is sort of on a Muslim-Christian fault line in Africa. Muslims and Christians have gotten along fairly well in this country in the past. That doesn't seem to be the case now. I mean, is this drawing in anger from elsewhere on the continent? And is that what's fueling what we are seeing here?
SMITH: Well, what has been very inflammatory since the coup in March is that the Seleca rebels, who are nearly all Muslim, were assisted by mercenaries from neighboring countries - Chad, Sudan - and those mercenaries within the Central African Republic, they tend to been associating with Muslims, only allowing Muslims to prepare their food because they fear poisoning from Christians.
And so very quickly, a sectarian divide has grown; a sort of battle of perceptions where each side becomes more and more entrenched and more and more resentful of the other. And I think what did not stop is a religious division in a country that has seen many coups and many political movements and opposition now is really taking on a very dangerously religious flavor and character. And some words are being thrown about at the moment about a civil war or a genocide. I don't think it's quite fair to use those yet, but certainly the country is trending in that direction.
GREENE: We've been talking to David Smith from Britain's Guardian newspaper about the violence in the Central African Republic. David, thanks very much.
SMITH: Thank you.
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