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Rebel advance captures towns, halts programs

Central African Republic, January 3, 2013

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Reuters/Luc Gnago, courtesy Thomson Reuters Foundation - AlertNet  </span>
    French soldiers patrol on a street near the presidential palace (background) in Bangui, as rebels advance on the capital. Photo: Reuters/Luc Gnago, courtesy Thomson Reuters Foundation - AlertNet
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Our play therapy groups are on hold, but local child protection committees are still monitoring urgent needs in the communities where we work. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

Update Jan. 21, 2013: A tenuous ceasefire has allowed Mercy Corps teams to return to the Central African Republic and resume program activities. Providing protection and meeting basic needs are top priorities as threats of insecurity remain.

Increasing unrest in the Central African Republic has cut off access to vulnerable communities, forcing Mercy Corps to temporarily halt programs ranging from emergency-aid distributions to farmer trainings to counseling for abducted youth and rape survivors.

Hostilities began in early December, when the Seleka rebel alliance began advancing toward the capital of Bangui, claiming the president failed to implement a previous peace deal signed in 2007. Reuters reported Wednesday that the rebels have agreed to halt their offensive until negotiations tentatively scheduled to begin next week. But the situation could quickly deteriorate into full-scale war.

The U.N. and the U.S. Embassy has evacuated its staff, and the capital is under virtual lockdown, with a daily curfew and maze of armed checkpoints adding to the tension. The rebels now occupy a number of cities to the north and east, including Bambari, where we run one of five counseling centers for victims of gender-based violence.

Mercy Corps has temporarily closed the centers, which provide counseling, medical care and legal support services. Trained community leaders continue to monitor the needs of women, who are at greater risk of abuse and violence during times of conflict.

Likewise, locally run child protection committees are providing informal support to youngsters until our play therapy program can resume. Children in the program have been already traumatized by attacks from Africa’s marauding Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA.

Many other ongoing Mercy Corps activities — including distributing emergency household supplies, building new wells and latrines, training farmers, and providing school supplies and tuition — are on hold until the security situation stabilizes.

We have evacuated staff and established a remote management team in Nairobi to monitor developments, stay in touch with affected communities, and quickly restart our programs as soon as possible. We'll also assess emergency needs arising from the conflict and respond where necessary.

Mercy Corps has been working in the Central African Republic since 2007. Our network of counseling centers and children's programs helps sexual-assault survivors heal and defend their rights, while agricultural and business training help rebuild livelihoods that were disrupted by LRA fighting and displacement. We're also working to fill basic needs, by rehabilitating water sources and supplying food to vulnerable families.