The Cable

U.N. Abandoning Central Africa, Charges Docs Without Borders

The premiere French aid organization Doctors Without Borders issued a stinging indictment Thursday of the U.N.'s relief effort in the Central African Republic. The world's leading aid agency has abandoned tens of thousands of needy civilians, according to the doctors' group. And it's ignored repeated appeals to deliver food, tents and other essentials to thousands in most desperate need of help.

Dr. Joanne Liu, the international president of the aid agency, known by its French name Médecins Sans Frontieres, wrote an open letter to Valerie Amos, the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, expressing "deep concern about the unacceptable performance of the U.N. humanitarian system" in CAR over the past year, citing U.N. failing in the capital city, Bangui, and Bossongoa, a site of intensive fighting.  

Liu said her agency over and over again issued appeals to U.N. relief agencies to "deliver food, tents and soap to more than 15,000 people displaced in the vicinity of Bangui's airport, without any reaction."

During a recent outbreak of fighting in Bossangoa, a rebel stronghold nearly 200 miles from the capital, U.N. relief sought shelter in a compound occupied by African peacekeepers, but failed to provide assistance to displaced civilians seeking safety in the same facility, leaving it to the French aid group to attend to civilian needs.

"Following the fighting in Bossangoa, the U.N. remained on security lock-down for days, abandoning the more than 30,000 displaced persons in the main Bossangoa camps, while MSF and ACF [Action Contra la Faim] teams moved through the city to provide emergency assistance," Liu wrote.

Other western sources confirmed some aspects of MSF's claims. One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the French relief agency recently took out time from its medical work in the midst of fighting in Bossangoa to build latrines at the African peacekeepers camp in response to the needs of thousands of displaced seeking protection there. The source, who was present at the site, said that a UNICEF water and sanitation team, having fled their own compound, drank beers and watched the MSF team dig their latrines. It was 10 AM in the morning.

In a statement, UNICEF Press Officer Rita Ann Wallace said the organization is "not aware of any formal complaints from other humanitarian organizations in the Central African Republic regarding UNICEF’s work. Should any organization have concerns regarding our operations, we would encourage them to raise these officially with us."

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), insisted in a statement that the U.N. was responding its best to the humanitarian crisis, given the extremely dangerous security breakdown, and suggested that it was not the right time to point the finger.

"U.N. agencies, funds and programs have been deploying to the field as security conditions permitted, sending mobile teams to locations including Bossangoa," it said. "As this crisis worsens it is important that all efforts and resources are focused on delivering aid to people in desperate need. There will be time for evaluation of the humanitarian response, but now is the time for action."

The Central African Republic, a former French colony of 4.6 million, has been the site of deepening security crisis since last December, when rebel forces launched an offensive against the government of President Francois Bozize. In March, a rebel coalition known as Seleka, comprised largely of fighters from the country's minority Muslim population, toppled Bozize. That unleashed a bloody spree of killing, looting and the destruction of villages in Christian communities.

In response, former military elements loyal to Bozize and mostly-Christian "anti-balaka" militias have carried out a series of blood reprisals against the country's Muslim communities. In recent months, U.N. officials have warned that the country is facing a potential genocide, setting the stage for a French led military intervention in CAR. The United States, Britain and Germany have provided logistical support to the French.

MSF's letter said that despite growing international awareness of the scale of suffering in central Africa, the U.N. has failed to scale up their aid effort, sentencing civilians to a life without even the most basic needs, including clean water and sanitation.  It implied that the U.N. had acknowledged that its efforts suffered from poor humanitarian leadership in the field, and lack of responsiveness. But it said the U.N. has failed to urgently and adequately address those shortcomings, or to deploy more experienced aid workers in CAR. Instead, the U.N. relief agencies have devoted their attention to developing a "time-consuming" new humanitarian response plan that could take weeks or months to implement.

Liu also faulted what she considered an excessively "risk averse" response to the crisis, saying that UN aid workers wear "military helmets and flak jackets in an environment that does not require such protective gear...While not playing down residual risks, MSF considers current U.N. agencies security concerns disproportionate to field realities."

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who today concluded a tour of CAR's conflict zones, confirmed MSF's concerns.

"The U.N. humanitarian response in CAR is deeply flawed, and is not reaching tens of thousands of displaced who are living in the bush after their villages were burned by Seleka," he told The Cable in an email. "People are needlessly dying as a result, at least partly because of the severe restrictions placed on U.N. humanitarians by their own security advisors... The U.N. needs to urgently reassess its humanitarian response in CAR, and work out mechanisms that allow them to better meet the urgent and massive humanitarian needs on the ground."

"A broader humanitarian response is not possible without increased security for the humanitarians themselves, who do face real threats in many areas," he added. "The biggest reason for the massive humanitarian crisis in CAR is the reign of terror imposed by Seleka, and increasingly also by the anti-balaka militias. The humanitarian needs of the displaced must be met, but we should not forget that they would all be much better off if the indiscriminate killings and village burnings stop, and people can return to their homes and live in peace."

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The Cable

Syria's Chemical War Continued Even as the West Threatened Retaliation

When it became clear that Syrian troops had killed large numbers of civilians with nerve gas on Aug. 21, their commanders screamed at them to call off the attack, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts. Yet the chemical warfare continued in Syria for several days after the attack that nearly dragged the United States into a war there.

That's one of many surprising findings from a U.N. investigation into chemical weapons in Syria, which concludes that chemical weapons have been used at least five times in the country's ongoing conflict -- and at least twice since the Aug. 21 nerve gas strike in the Damascus suburbs that Washington claimed killed as many at 1,400 people.

But what's particularly confusing is that it was Bashar al-Assad's supporters, and not his opponents, who claimed publicly that chemical weapons were used in the towns of Jobar on Aug. 24 and Ashrafiah Sahnaya on Aug. 25.

The timing of the attacks is also odd. On the same day that Syrian soldiers may have been exposed to poisonous gas in Jobar, British Prime Minister David Cameron's office issued a release saying that he and President Barack Obama were "both gravely concerned by the attack that took place in Damascus on Wednesday and the increasing signs that this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people.... [S]ignificant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community."

In other words, as the war drums for a Western strike on Syria began to beat, there were probably two more chemical attacks in the country. But who launched them?

The Assad regime's claims of additional chemical attacks by rebel forces were brushed off in the aftermath of a slaughter that produced dozens of videos of dead children, stacked like cordwood. Now it appears Syria's assertions may have been true, though evidence of chemical weapons use by opposition forces remains far from proven. And the report concedes that the U.N. investigators were not able to establish a clear chain of custody linking any possible perpetrators to the crimes.

The report asserts that "the United Nations mission collected evidence consistent with the probable use of chemical weapons in Jobar on 24 August 2013 on a relatively small scale against soldiers." The team also claims to have collected evidence that "chemical weapons were used in Ashrafiah Sahnaya on 25 August 2013 on a small scale against soldiers." In Jobar, blood samples recovered by the Syrian government, and "authenticated" by the United Nations, tested positive for signatures of sarin.

The report, however, acknowledges that its investigation was inconclusive, citing its inability in Jobar to secure "primary information on the delivery system(s) and environmental samples collected and analyzed under the chain of custody." The U.N., it noted, "could not establish the link between victims, the alleged event and the alleged site." The report also asserted that the crime scene in Jobar was compromised "by visits of representatives of the Syrian Government who had reportedly moved the remnants of two explosive devices alleged to be the munitions used in the incident." The U.N. mission later examined those explosive fragments at a government storage site.

The long-anticipated U.N. investigation -- which was authored by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom -- provided no new conclusive evidence about who was responsible for the attacks. (An earlier report, however, provided strong circumstantial evidence that the Assad regime launched the Aug. 21 strike.) This new, 82-page report states simply: "The United Nations mission concludes that chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic."

Yet the report could add fuel to a debate over Syria's chemical weapons that was already burning hot. Last weekend, the controversial investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote an article strongly suggesting that it was the rebels, not the Syrian government, who launched the Aug. 21 attacks. The report was roundly criticized for mischaracterizing the munitions used in the strike.

The U.N. teams' findings are unlikely to alter the course of international efforts to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons. While Damascus has refused to admit it used chemical weapons, it has acknowledged that it possesses an unconventional arsenal, including nerve gas. Under a pact brokered by the United States and Russia, Syria is undertaking the destruction of that program under international supervision.

Still, the report helps flesh out the details about the introduction of chemical weapons into the Syrian battlefield. The report examines seven out of 16 alleged incidents of chemical weapons use, saying there was insufficient evidence in eight of the cases to justify further investigation.

The U.N. report also examines a March 19 incident in the town of Khan Al Asal. The Syrian government claimed that rebels used nerve agent in an attack against Army troops; but Britain and France countered that the Syrian troops were exposed in a friendly fire incident involving a government rocket attack. Today's report is unlikely to settle the matter. It states that the U.N. mission "collected credible information that corroborates the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Khan Al Asal on 19 March 2013 against soldiers and civilians. However, the release of chemical weapons at the alleged site could not be independently verified in the absence of primary information about delivery systems and of environmental and biomedical samples collected and analyzed under the chain of custody."

At the time of the incident, Khan Al Asal was under the control of Syrian forces, but was engaged in ongoing shelling with opposition forces in areas surrounding the village. At about 7 a.m., a munition landed "near a living quarter approximately 300 meters from a military checkpoint," sending nearly 150 people, including Syrian troops, to six nearby hospitals for treatment. "The munition released gas on its impact. The air stood still and witnesses described a yellowish-green mist in the air and a pungent and strong sulfur-like smell."

Sellstrom's effort to reach definite conclusions about any of the incidents was hampered by ongoing fighting, which limited his team's access to sites where chemical weapons were used, and conflicting testimony.

In Khan Al Asal, Sellstrom said that his team, which did not visit the site, "received contradictory information as to how chemical weapons agents were delivered." Sellstrom said his team was also unable to corroborate the findings of a Russian investigation, which concluded that sarin had been detected in soil samples and metal fragments.

The report also found that chemical weapons had been used on April 29 in the towns of Saraqeb, near Idlib.

After receiving the report, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon thanked Sellstrom and his team for "their important and courageous work. They have carried out their tasks with the highest degree of professionalism, and did so in the face of many dangers."

AFP / Getty Images