C.Africa warlord dismisses human rights abuses
The head of a notorious rebel group in Central African Republic (CAR) has brushed off allegations of atrocities, portraying himself instead as the defender of a neglected and persecuted minority.
In an interview with AFP in the town of Alindao, Ali Darassa hit back at accusations of abuse by rights watchdogs and said his group had acted to defend the Fula people, a largely nomadic group also called the Fulani.
In September, Amnesty International blamed a wave of brutal attacks in Basse-Kotto province on Darassa's Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC).
It accused the group of systematically using "rape as a weapon of war, and as a means of violently humiliating and degrading its victims".
"Where is the proof?" the 41-year-old commander asked, denouncing Amnesty for what he termed its "political" reports.
Darassa, who has commanded the UPC since 2014, said his group was a "necessity" in the strife-torn country.
"The state isn't doing its job, it does not guarantee the safety of local populations," he said.
"Farmers have always been victims of looting and violence, and the Fulani have been forever forgotten... marginalised," he said.
Darassa maintained the UPC fights "for their security and their freedom of movement".
"I offer a sanctuary of protection and support," he said.
The UPC is an offshoot of the so-called Seleka rebel alliance -- a coalition of Muslim-majority militias who overthrew president Francois Bozize in 2013.
The Seleka in turn were ousted by a military intervention led by former colonial ruler France.
Those events sparked some of the bloodiest sectarian violence in the country's history as mainly Christian and animist militias sought revenge, organising vigilante units called "anti-balaka" (anti-machete), in reference to the machetes used by Seleka rebels.
Thousands of people have died. According to the UN, more than a million people have fled their homes and 2.4 million people -- more than half of the Central African population -- are in need of emergency food aid.
- Move to Alindao -
In February this year, Darassa was forced out of CAR's third largest town, Bambari, in a region rich in gold, diamonds and timber, by the UN's peacekeeping force, MINUSCA.
He moved with his forces 120 kilometres (70 miles) to Alindao, a town in south-central CAR, about 300 km (185 miles) from the capital Bangui.
To reach the town to interview him required an 11-hour trip on a devastated highway, punctuated by 10 roadblocks held by his men.
His force now control about half of the town, which is now-defacto divided.
More than 15,000 displaced people -- the majority of them Christian -- have taken refuge around the town's Christian church.
Physically huge, Darassa sat on a wooden chair outside at his makeshift military base, a former public building downtown. He was surrounded by a dozen armed bodyguards and a select few "advisors" in civilian garb.
Darassa said that in CAR's provinces, "we are fully at war."
"Those who are attacking us are the anti-balaka ... who act on behalf of the government and attack farmers, villagers, merchants," Darassa said, describing himself as a "farmer from father to son" and a "Central African Fulani and general of the UPC".
He accused Bangui of feeding the anti-balaka ranks with "state representatives" in villages and towns, including neighbourhood leaders, deputies and prefects.
"The government encourages citizens to defend themselves and that's what will make a genocide."
In Alindao, Darassa seems to enjoy the support of some community leaders, former lawmakers and part of the population.
The group reportedly raises money by imposing taxes and other levies, although Darassa refused to give any details on funding, describing the issue as "confidential".
- Divided country -
Darassa's self-confidence highlights the clout of powerful militia leaders in a country that remains weak and divided among many lines since the election of President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who took office in March 2016.
In August, the UN's then-aid chief Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council he saw "the early warning signs of genocide" in the deeply poor, divided nation.
Touadera disputes this, saying the violence is not sectarian but linked to battle for control over the country's resources.
Last month, he appealed for the UN to beef up its 12,000-strong peacekeeping force in CAR and for a 2013 Security Council arms embargo to be eased, to let his government purchase modern military equipment.