Bangui market tills ring empty amid soaring poverty

Oils, soap and smoked fish may have returned to Bangui's colourful market stalls, but underneath the luring smells and lively buzz of haggling vendors, the tills ring empty, a sign of the Central African Republic's crippling finances and the constant fear of looters.

"I've been open since seven this morning, but at noon, I barely have 3,500 CFA francs (5.34 euros, $7) in my till. It's pathetic. Civil servants aren't being paid, the money doesn't circulate. We don't know what will become of us unless the situation in the country improves," said merchant Anour Tokis.

Just over a month after the Seleka rebel coalition entered the capital and seized power, the economy of the Central African Republic, already one of the world's poorest nations, has plunged even further.

While civil servants are still waiting for their March pay cheques, the country's new interim president Michel Djotodia last month announced that the CAR's financial situation is about to go from bad to worse. "The coffers are empty," he said.

"We're broke. We can no longer keep going. No money. Our families are suffering. We don't know when the salaries will be paid," finance ministry worker Olivier Darnaye said.

The rebels who ousted president Francois Bozize and took control of the landlocked nation on March 24 have not been paid either. And most of them are still carrying arms.

"Even if the workers were to be paid, the armed men need to be disarmed before we can resume work," government worker Fernand Ndjapou said.

He added that many civil servants had left their jobs while waiting for their salaries. In the justice ministry, "there's no one, except for the magistrates and lawyers...", he said.

On the back of the dire financial situation, Bangui has been badly hit by looting and criminality, some of which has allegedly been carried out by rebels.

"You see us selling at the market, but it's with fear in the pit of our stomachs that we are here," vegetable vendor Annette Ngozo explained.

"The Seleka constantly patrols around us. Yesterday, three armed men robbed a telephone credit seller. They took three mobile telephones and some money on the pretext that the young merchant was a soldier," she said.

Rebel patrols have infiltrated more than just the marketplace.

"How do you want us to go back to work when part of our offices is occupied by Seleka members who are still armed and continue to threaten us?" asked Leon Modomale, head of a service to fight malaria.

Bangui's police force, which is supposed to ensure the safety in the capital, has also been hit by the lack of funds, leaving many officers disheartened.

"We obeyed the call by our minister, we went to work. But (...) in what conditions are we supposed to work when you can see for yourself that everything is destroyed? We have no means to work at the moment," one officer said on the condition of anonymity.

The rebel takeover has even left the country's children out in the cold as their schools have been occupied by the fighters, who witnesses say have looted and ruined many of the buildings.

The new government in a bid to restore normal life has called for students and teachers to return to class next week and appealed to the rebel forces to leave the schools.

"I appeal to my brothers in the Seleka coalition who have occupied and continue to occupy the schools or the offices of education officials, to leave them without delay, in order to allow the (scholastic ) activities to resume in these establishments," said education minister Marcel Loudegue.

"I am counting on everyone... to put their energies toward saving the country," he added.