Fears of genocide brewing in Central African Republic

The United Nations — estimating more than half of Central African Republic’s population is affected by the worsening humanitarian crisis — has said it fears genocide brewing.

According to the United Nations, more than 700,000 people across the Central African Republic have been displaced — including about 290,000 alone in the capital of Bangui — and 2.6 million “need immediate humanitarian assistance.”

Attempts to purge Muslims from parts of the war-torn country have prompted “a Muslim exodus of historic proportions,” according to rights group Amnesty International.

The UN’s top official on refugees, Antonio Guterres, said the country is “a humanitarian catastrophe.”

“There is an ethnic-religious cleansing taking place. It must be stopped,” Guterres said. “There are people who are still being killed here and there — even some massacres still taking place.”

Massive refugee airlift underway from Central African Republic

The Central African Republic was plunged into chaos last year after a coalition of rebels ousted the president, the latest in a series of coups since it gained independence. One of the rebels became interim President, and political turmoil and violence spiraled. In November 2013, the UN warned that Central African Republic was at risk of spiraling into genocide.

At least 1,000 people have died in the violence, and some 958,000 more, many of them children, have been forced from their homes within the Central African Republic, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR. Nearly a quarter of the population has been displaced.

On Saturday, an operation to airlift thousands of African migrants stranded in violence-ravaged Central African Republic in dire humanitarian conditions started. The airlift, on a specially chartered plane, has been set up by the International Organization for Migration in response to the urgent need for tens of thousands of migrants to flee the country. Priority has been given to families, especially women and children.

Three charter flights to Chad will be followed by two to Mali. In the past couple of weeks, the IOM has helped other African nations including Senegal and Burkino Fas, to evacuate thousands of their citizens. The operation to fly out all the migrants stranded in the country will likely take several weeks. Many are outside the capital, making movement dangerous and access difficult.

Many will need psychological and social support to help them recover from their experience, not least because foreigners have often been the target of the violence currently tearing the Central African Republic apart.

While nearly 27,000 migrants from neighboring countries have been evacuated by their countries, at least 33,000 more who’ve asked for help from their embassies remain in urgent need of aid, the IOM said.

Some evacuations from Homs despite gunfire and explosions

Even though gunfire interrupted a U.N.-brokered humanitarian pause, more than 600 people, mostly women, children and senior citizens, were evacuated from the Syrian city of Homs, where rebels battle government troops and each other.

Vehicles from the Red Crescent and United Nations had a difficult time entering the city over the weekend as they were targeted by gunfire and explosives. But workers managed to deliver some aid to the thousands of people in the besieged section of the city known as Homs.

A photo on the Twitter feed of the Syrian Red Crescent showed dozens of people standing in the rubble of a street as aid workers passed out supplies and food. “Although the team was shelled and fired upon we managed to deliver 250 food parcels,190 hygiene kits and chronic diseases medicines,” the organization said in a tweet.

Who targeted the aid workers is in dispute. A Wall Street Journal reporter in Syria told CNN that workers in the convoy had no doubt the fire came from government forces. But the governor of the province, Talal al-Barazi, said it was two rival rebel factions — one that wants to keep civilians as human shields and another that wants to exchange them for aid.

Humanitarian deal in Homs

The United Nations and the United States confirmed an agreement announced by Syrian rebels and the government of a planned cease-fire in the besieged Old City of Homs that would allow some people to flee and humanitarian aid to arrive for the first time in over a year.

Once the fighting halts, women, civilians over 55 and children under 15 can choose to leave the Old City if they agree not to take up arms against the government, he said.

After the first group of evacuations, Syrian troops would clear the way for a U.N. aid convoy packed with food and medicine to enter the area for the first time in more than a year.

According to SANA, the official Syrian news agency, the government would provide shelter, food and medical treatment to people who leave the Old City. In addition, the agreement calls for government forces to allow humanitarian assistance to people who remain in the besieged area, SANA reported. Valerie Amos, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said the cease-fire agreement would mean essential supplies for about 2,500 people in Homs.

[CNN]

Refugees starving to death in Damascus suburb

In a rare moment of cooperation between the Syrian government and rebel forces, aid agencies say hundreds of people were allowed to evacuate over the weekend from a suburb of Damascus where the nearly three-year-old civil war has yielded yet another horror: Hunger so severe that a significant number of people are said to be now starving to death.

The evacuation from Yarmouk Camp, a rebel-held suburb just south of Damascus, comes after 89 people, most of them children and elderly people, have died of malnutrition-related diseases since January 1, according to Jamal Hammad, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent. He said his count only includes cases with confirmed death certificates.

Children under the age of one and elderly people over 65 account for 60 percent of the deaths, he said.  The United Nations estimates that some 20,000 people remain there, virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

Osama, a 26-year-old former graduate student in economics who is also a local relief worker, said that in Yarmouk, people are eating cats, grass and cactus they are so hungry. Snipers have shot people dead while they are gathering grass to eat, he said.

In recent days, a small amount of food aid has trickled in through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Hammad’s wife Amal Ahmad, a trained x-ray technician who is also a relief worker, said this was the first actual food she and many she knows have eaten in at least four months. She said many people, especially children, had problems digesting the food since their stomachs are completely empty, and they vomited their first meals.

Osama said some people are down to consuming only water. “Sometimes we do this…drink some water with some sugar or some salt and go back to sleep. But when you go to the street you will find maybe the people next door…they’re dead,” he said.

Photographs of emaciated children have emerged across the Internet in recent days, purportedly from Yarmouk. Sources confirm that photos obtained by NBC News are of children in Yarmouk, and were taken in recent days and weeks.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said there are “widespread reports of malnutrition” including children with rickets and anemia. He also said, “people, including infants, are eating animal feed.”

Gunness said the aid allowed into Yarmouk so far is “shockingly inadequate to meet the dire needs of these civilians,” and called on Syrian authorities and all parties in the conflict to facilitate the rapid access of substantial quantities of food to civilians in Yarmouk.

Asked what Yarmouk needs most, Osama said, “We need to save the children inside Yarmouk. Maybe send them out of Syria…our families will be happy, believe me. Just save the children.”

Watch related video clip

[NBC]