Central African Republic turns against the French Protesters denounce intervention in mutiny; looters sack capital

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BANGUI, Central African Republic -- One week after an army mutiny that turned into a cyclone of looting and protest against an unpopular government and against French intervention, the deployment of hundreds more French troops showed no signs of decisively tipping the balance in favor of the elected president, Ange-Felix Patasse.

Yesterday the looting moved from the city center, where nearly every business has been smashed and emptied, to the affluent neighborhoods on the banks of the Ubangi River, where most senior diplomats live.

Throughout the day, canoes ferried freshly stolen goods across the river to Zaire.

French and American diplomats continued discussions yesterday about evacuating scores of their citizens living in isolated parts of the country.

Troops rout thieves

Thieves began ransacking American official residences and the residence of the World Bank representatives, among others, yesterday before they were chased off by patrolling troops.

"What we are seeing, unfortunately, is just a total breakdown of law and order," said a Western diplomat.

In the devastated city center, French soldiers crouched in defensive positions behind the bullet-pocked walls of businesses destroyed in the looting while hundreds of anti-government protesters marched yesterday for the third day running, defying a ban on public gatherings and angrily denouncing the French presence here.

A bit farther down the principal road, Avenue Barthelemy Boganda, rebellious soldiers, called -FACA, or Armed Forces of Central Africa, stayed close to huge mango trees with their automatic weapons in case of an assault on their positions.

Not far from the international airport, next to France's Central African air base here, another march was organized yesterday morning. This one, in favor of the government, drew a somewhat smaller crowd, and lacked the fervor of the anti-government demonstration.

Sentiment here seemed to weigh heavily against a leader whose tenure has been marked by incompetence and corruption. Many workers here have gone unpaid for months.

Deaths blamed on president

Many people now blame the president for the deaths of at least a dozen mutinous soldiers and an undetermined number of others at the hands of French troops who swooped into action here Wednesday.

"What is tolerable in ordinary times becomes intolerable when people are hungry and they are not receiving their salaries," said one civil servant, explaining the outburst of popular anger that has destroyed much of this city. "When this happens, it suffices to tell someone that the president is responsible and people start lining up to take action."

The army mutiny, the second in two months, grew out of an insolvent government's inability to pay soldiers who were owed several months' salaries before their first uprising.

Most other government employees are owed back pay as well. Two years after a 50 percent devaluation of the local French-backed franc, purchasing power and living standards for almost all but senior officials have plummeted.

"The soldiers go into the bush for a month at a time to defend our country from insurgents and poachers from Sudan and Chad and come back to town and are not paid," said Jose Yambi, who spoke near the demarcation line that separates French and rebel positions. "What do you expect them to do? And what of us, the people, who don't get paid and have no guns to back our demands?"

From the start of this crisis, many Central Africans have bitterly criticized the French, who have long wielded tremendous influence here.

"What we were living was a disguised colonialism," said Appolonaire Bina Doumba, 31, who studied in France. "In every office where anything is decided here you find a Frenchman. But these events represent an end of that era."

Pub Date: 5/26/96

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