A total of 19 Central African soldiers, taken hostage on February 14 by an alliance of rebel groups in the north of the Central African Republic, were released on Tuesday, announced the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Of the 20 soldiers taken hostage more than two months ago, 19 were released and "will arrive in Birao (North) around 5 p.m. (local) and they will stay there until we organize their return to Bangui" , Yves Van Loo , deputy head of the ICRC delegation in the Central African Republic, told AFP.
They had been taken hostage by members of the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) after "violent fighting" between soldiers and rebels in Sikikede, a locality in the Vakaga region in the north of the country, at the crossroads of Chadian and Sudanese borders.
According to the government, these clashes had caused “considerable” military losses, which had not communicated a precise assessment. The soldiers "seem to be in good health and able to withstand the trip," said Mr. Van Loo.
The CPC confirmed the information in a statement, citing a "voluntary and unilateral decision to release the 20 soldiers taken prisoner" more than two months ago. Among them, 19 were actually released. "The twentieth is an injured person who had been separated from the group for medical treatment. We will recover him at another location later ," Van Loo told AFP.
The liberation operations took place in an area whose access is made difficult by fighting between rebels, soldiers, and their mercenary allies from the Russian paramilitary group Wagner .
"Since their hostage, their release was our greatest concern (...) We wanted to see them free," Augustin Ndando Kpako , spokesman for the General Staff of the Armed Forces, told AFP . "We intervened from the start as a neutral player in order to negotiate with all the parties concerned" , explained Mr. Van Loo.
The CPC's press release confirms that it has "opened negotiations" with "the International Committee of the Red Cross and MINUSCA", the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic.
But she accuses the government and the Central African president, Faustin Archange Touadéra , of having refused "to assume his role as a military leader by getting personally involved in the release" of these men.
"The deafening silence of President Touadéra" and "of his Minister of Defense show the lack of interest if not the total contempt they have for the military" , accused of fighting "to save the President's chair" , can we still read.
Asked about these accusations in particular, the authorities did not respond immediately. After the February 14 attack, the army chief of staff, Zephirin Mamadou, denounced an "act of terrorism" perpetrated by a "criminal armed group" .
CPC spokesman Mamadou Koura told AFP that he was behind the attack. He then assured that the rebels controlled the town of Sikikede , which the army disputed, and that AFP could not verify from independent sources.
The Central African Republic is the second least developed country in the world according to the UN, and has been the scene of a deadly civil war since 2013 in its first years but which has decreased in intensity since 2018.
At the end of 2020, the most powerful of the many armed groups which then shared two-thirds of the territory had joined forces within the CPC and had launched an offensive on Bangui shortly before the presidential and legislative elections to try to overthrow the head of the country. State Faustin Archange Touadéra, who had called on Moscow to rescue his destitute army.