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Violence simmers in C. Africa as peace talks open

French soldiers taking part in the 'Sangaris Operation' stand guard as people protest in Bimbo near the Central African Republic capital Bangui on June 23, 2014/AFP

French soldiers taking part in the ‘Sangaris Operation’ stand guard as people protest in Bimbo near the Central African Republic capital Bangui on June 23, 2014/AFP

BRAZZAVILLE, July 21- Key players in the Central African conflict launched a fresh round of talks in Brazzaville on Monday to end more than a year of sectarian bloodshed in the direly poor nation.

But even as negotiators huddled in Congo, fresh violence erupted in the capital Bangui with the killing of a former Seleka rebel that sparked an immediate riposte.

The three day forum for reconciliation and political dialogue, chaired by Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso, is aimed a resolving a crisis that has left thousands of civilians dead and driven more than a million people from their homes.

One of Africa’s poorest countries, CAR has been in crisis since the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in a March 2013 coup, with months of atrocities by rebels gone rogue sparking reprisal attacks by mostly Christian anti balaka vigilantes.

The African Union led peacekeeping force in CAR, MISCA, blamed the anti balaka groups for the killing on Monday, saying their victim was on his way “to get breakfast” near the main hospital when he was killed.

Allies of the victim then stormed out of their nearby base camp, looting and robbing stores, firing off shots and taking a group of students captive.

“An indeterminate number of youth from the high school next to the hospital were also taken prisoner by the ex Seleka,” a MISCA source who asked not to be named told AFP.

A father of one of the youths who tried to follow his son was stabbed and taken to the hospital for treatment, he said, adding that the area “rang out with gunfire”.

MISCA troops and European led forces took up positions to secure the hospital near the fighting.

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Monday’s violence underscores the challenge facing peace negotiators in Congo, who are aiming to produce an accord by this Wednesday.

The agreement aims to end hostilities, disarm fighters and establish a framework for political transition, paving the way for a national reconciliation council to take place in Bangui in October.

Some 170 Central African officials were expected in Brazzaville, including members of transitional President Catherine Samba Panza’s government, lawmakers, envoys from armed groups, political parties and civil society. They are backed by a contact group of some 30 countries and organisations under the mediation of Congo.

But several political and religious leaders in CAR have boycotted the talks in Brazzaville, after calling for them to be held at home.

Divisions within the Seleka and anti-balaka groups also meant they struggled to designate their negotiators for the talks.

Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa director at the International Crisis Group, warned that the lack of fully representative envoys and the short time allocated for the talks could hamper their chance of success.

Previous peace summits held in Gabon or Chad have produced no tangible results in efforts to end the conflict.

French peacekeepers intervened in the former colony in December last year, along with a multinational force raised by the African Union, amid fears of a Rwanda style genocide.

They are to be joined in coming months by a UN peacekeeping force of some 2,500 troops.

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