BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Dozens of heavily armed Muslim rebels opened fire in a hospital in Central African Republic, killing at least 16 people, including three local health workers for Doctors Without Borders, officials said Monday.
In further violence, a convoy transporting more than 1,300 Muslims to safety in the country's far north came under attack, leaving at least two people dead, according to a spokesman with the African peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic.
The weekend attack on the hospital was the first time the international aid group has lost staff members in this country since sectarian violence began in December. The group, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF, is the only group working in much of the impoverished country and has kept up its efforts despite the fighting.
The massacre took place in Boguila, in the northwest near the border with Chad, where MSF has operated since 2006. The heavily armed rebels assaulted the compound as health workers met with community leaders.
"While some of the gunmen robbed the MSF office at gunpoint and fired shots into the air, other armed men approached the meeting place where MSF staff and community members had gathered together on benches," the group said Monday. "Unprovoked, the armed men started firing heavily into the crowd, leaving both dead and critically wounded."
The group will suspend activities in Boguila following the killings, said Stefano Argenziano, the head of MSF in Central African Republic.
"While we remain committed to providing humanitarian assistance to the community, we also have to take into account the safety of our staff," Argenziano said. "In reaction to this unconscionable act, we are also examining whether it is feasible to continue operations in other areas."
Sylvain Dofone, a legislator from the Boguila area told The Associated Press "it's indescribable what is happening there."
"People are completely at the mercy of the Seleka forces and there is absolutely no international peacekeeping force present in the area," he said.
Earlier this month, almost 7,000 people fled into the countryside after a convoy came under attack in the area. As many as 40 people sought refuge at the MSF clinic at the time, the group said.
Some 2,000 French troops and nearly 5,000 African peacekeepers are trying to stabilize Central African Republic, a country the size of Texas that is home to 4.6 million people. The violence also has targeted clergy, including a priest killed earlier this month, and a worker with the International Committee of the Red Cross who was slain in the town of Ndele in March.
The group known as Seleka was forced from power in the capital back in January nearly a year after its fighters overthrew the president of a decade. Although ousted from Bangui, Seleka militants have been regrouping in the north and have staged a series of attacks on towns in recent weeks.
However, one Seleka leader denied that his militants were responsible, accusing another armed group from neighboring Cameroon of having carried out Saturday's violence.
"There are no Seleka in this region," said Mohamed Moussa Dhaffane, a one-time general with the rebels who later fell out with now-sidelined President Michel Djotodia.
The Seleka forces, which include mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, were blamed for numerous atrocities against civilians during their violent 10-month rule. While their agenda was not religious in nature, the disproportionate violence carried out against Christians prompted a vicious backlash when Seleka lost control of the government. Christian militia fighters known as the anti-Balaka began launching attacks on Muslim civilians, carrying out massacres that prompted tens of thousands of Muslims to seek refuge in neighboring countries.
Some of the people trying to escape have been killed even while trying to flee.
Maj. Patrick Fidodugingo, spokesman for the Rwandan peacekeeping contingent, said Monday that grenades had been launched at the convoy that left Bangui on Sunday with more than 1,300 Muslims aboard some 20 trucks.
The convoy is bound for two northern towns still inside Central African Republic, though suspected Christian militants launched grenades that killed two and left at least six wounded, he said.
Associated Press writers Steve Niko and Hippolyte Marboua contributed to this report.
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