By JOSE RICHARD POUAMBI and RUKMINI CALLIMACHI
FILE – In this Jan. 7, 2013 file photo, Central African Republic rebel leader Michel Djotodia arrives ahead of planned peace talks with Central African Republic’s government, in Libreville, Gabon. Rebels overthrew Central African Republic’s president of a decade on Sunday, March 24, after invading the capital. Seleka rebel group leader Djotodia told French radio station RFI Monday, March 25, that he is the de facto head of state and should be addressed as the president. (AP Photo/Joel Bouopda Tatou, File)
BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Aid groups and the international community on Tuesday condemned widespread looting in Central African Republic’s capital, saying that even hospitals had been robbed in the aftermath of a weekend coup that ousted the president of a decade.
Efforts to restore order to Bangui, a city of 700,000, came as a rebel leader declared himself the new president and announced he would stay in power for three years.
Continuing violence in Central African Republic was preventing critically wounded patients from getting the help they needed, said the French medical aid group, Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders.
“MSF condemns the looting and robberies of our facilities and reminds all parties that medical personnel must be respected and protected and must be granted all available help in the performance of their duties,” said Serge St. Louis, MSF head of mission in Bangui.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky also said Tuesday that “widespread looting is continuing, including of one pediatric hospital.”
More than 1,000 armed rebels from the alliance known as Seleka attacked the capital on Saturday, forcing longtime President Francois Bozize into exile in neighboring Cameroon. The fierce fighting left at least 13 South African soldiers dead and an untold number of civilian casualties.
It was the latest political turmoil to destabilize Central African Republic, a country where leaders since independence from France in 1960 have come to power or been ousted in a series of coups and rebellions.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell sharply criticized the “illegitimate seizure of power.”
“We strongly condemn these actions,” Ventrell told reporters. “The Seleka leadership must account for its trail of destruction.”
On Monday, rebel leader Michel Djotodia made his first public declaration since overthrowing Bozize, stating that he planned to stay in power until 2016.
The leader of the rebel coalition justified the coup by saying that Bozize had veered into dictatorship during his 10 years in power.
“Through us, it was the entire population of Central African Republic that rose up as a single man against the president,” Djotodia said, according to Radio France Internationale.
Meanwhile, French forces protecting Bangui’s main airport opened fire on three cars that were speeding toward a security checkpoint, said the French Defense Ministry.
The cars, carrying Indian and Chadian citizens, continued despite warning shots. Two Indian citizens were killed, and the wounded Indian and Chadian passengers were taken for medical care, the defense ministry said in the statement Monday.
France is investigating the shooting, the statement said.
The rebels’ advance started last week when they pushed past Damara, a town 75 kilometers (47 miles) to the northeast. Damara had marked the line of control drawn by regional forces in January, following an accord signed in Libreville, the capital of neighboring Gabon.
The rebels broke that accord last week, claiming that Bozize’s government had failed to make good on a series of promises, including sending back the South African troops guarding the capital.
The South African troops came under an onslaught of fire from the Seleka rebels, who shot and killed 13 South African soldiers over the weekend, in their fight to take the capital.
Seleka is a loose coalition of fighters, many of whom fought in previous rebellions. They joined forces last fall, beginning their advance toward the capital in December.
The Seleka fighters benefited from the growing dissatisfaction with Bozize, who came to power in 2003, at the helm of a column of a different rebel group which also invaded the capital and toppled the former leader.
Bozize is accused of growing cronyism, and in the last election in 2011, around 20 of Bozize’s family members and close associates, including former mistresses, won posts in the government, according to Louisa Lombard, a postdoctoral fellow in geography at the University of California, Berkeley.
“There was the sense that governing was being carried out by a tighter and tighter circle of people around Bozize,” says Lombard, who has been traveling to Central African Republic for the past 10 years for research.
“And although all sorts of technocratic procedures were in place to make the government more inclusive, it was in fact less and less inclusive. The more technocratic people got sidelined. Those who held positions of power did not have much education, much background in their chosen field. There was a disregard for any kind of merit in governing.”
Lombard cautions, however, that the Seleka coalition is very loosely held together. Already on Monday, a different rebel leader, 26-year-old Nelson N’Djadder who is based in Paris, said that he does not recognize Djotodia as their new president.
“Seleka is a very heterogeneous group. That is something we noticed since the beginning, when it first emerged,” said Lombard. “Holding it together will be a big problem.”
Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper in Washington and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.