The global community needs to move fast to stop the violence in Central African Republic spiralling out of control and must send in international peacekeeping troops to restore security, a leading US aid organization said Monday.
While the weekend deployment of French troops has calmed tensions in the capital Bangui, "there's a lot more that can be done and it needs to be done immediately," said Su'ad Jarbawi, interim director in Central African Republic for the non-governmental group Mercy Corps.
"The situation in Central African Republic is declining rapidly in terms of security, which is leading to a humanitarian crisis that will continue to augment and become larger in scale unless the international community intervenes now," she told AFP in Washington.
Jarbawi is in the US capital to meet White House and State Department officials, as well as US lawmakers, to press for more US aid to the long-neglected and unstable country plunged into chaos when former rebels seized power in a March coup.
Washington announced Monday it was to help fly African Union troops deploying as part of the French-led effort, transporting them from Burundi to the Central African Republic.
"Greater security is permitting UN and other humanitarian organizations to expand their assistance efforts," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
The US was also looking at other ways to support the French military operation such as planning to buy vehicles for under-equipped forces.
If requested, the US could also provide some military training for the AU forces, Psaki said.
With numerous armed militias stalking the country and carrying out sudden, unpredictable attacks, particularly in remote areas outside Bangui, people are living "in utter fear and panic. They're fleeing their houses, they're living in the bush," Mercy Corps' Jarbawi said.
Just how many militias there are and who controls them remains unclear, but in past months more than 400,000 people out of the 4.6 million population have fled their homes.
Mercy Corps, which has worked in Central African Republic since 2007 seeking to help farmers, improve access to water and support victims of gender-based violence, has "had to rapidly switch our approach from development into emergency response because the situation is moving so fast, is so insecure and the needs are so dire."
Jarbawi cautioned against the growing narrative that the violence is fuelled by sectarian tensions between Christian and Muslim rival militias, saying it was "far more complicated."
"Ultimately this is an armed group versus another armed group going in for resources, and it happens that one armed group belongs to a certain faith and another belongs to another faith," she told AFP.
"This is a community that lived in peace and in harmony prior to the recent events and to start to polarize the community into Christian versus Muslim means that we're introducing yet another layer of conflict that's being superimposed on civilians when it wasn't there."
The conflict flared up so fast that Mercy Corps is now in an unusual position for a humanitarian group of first seeking to provide protection for a traumatized population, before addressing food and shelter needs.
The French military is backing an UN-mandated African Union force, but Jarbawi said a broader international involvement was needed.
"The example we give is it's like a neighborhood problem being solved by neighbors. The situation can get out of hand fast and the international peacekeeping forces will provide for a much-needed international attention that this crisis requires."