DAKAR (AlertNet) – Sectarian violence which erupted last week in the southeastern forest region of Guinea has exposed the country’s vulnerability to a major humanitarian crisis, a senior U.N. official has warned.
Three people were killed and 68 wounded when clashes broke out on Feb. 5 in Nzerekore about 500 km (310 miles) from the capital Conakry.
The violence began when a Christian woman, accused of wearing an indecent dress while passing Muslims at prayer, was attacked. In retaliation, Christians stoned Muslims trying to pray and the violence continued throughout the weekend.
“We can quickly move from a relatively stable humanitarian situation to a critical situation,” Philippe Verstraeten, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Guinea, told AlertNet. “We have seen this risk with the … incidents at Nzerekore.”
Analysts say the clashes, which seem to have both ethnic and political undertones, could lead to a national and regional crisis if not properly handled.
“It is a fragile region that can be explosive given that it is at the junction of three countries that are just recovering from war – Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast,” Verstraeten said in a telephone conversation from Conakry.
About 4,000 Ivorian refugees live in Nzerekore alongside thousands of Liberians, according to the United Nations. The poor state of roads in that part of the country makes it difficult for humanitarian agencies to reach those in need of aid.
Access has worsened since the clashes. On Monday, the United Nations cancelled its regular humanitarian flight to Nzerekore. And the World Health Organisation sent a truck with medicines for Nzerekore’s hospital on Friday but it has not yet been able to enter the town. Although the fighting has stopped, the situation remains tense.
Humanitarian agencies have kept impoverished Guinea in their sights since the military junta crushed an opposition protest on Sept. 28, 2009. About 150 people were killed and many were raped by security forces, according to Human Rights Watch.
Optimism has grown in Guinea since January when a civilian prime minister was appointed to head a power-sharing government and oversee a return to civilian rule. But the international community remains cautious.
“We are not in an acute emergency situation like in other countries, but we are facing a serious problem of vulnerability,” Verstraeten said.
“When one looks at what happened to neighbouring countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, it is clear that there are political, ethnic and other elements in Guinea which can lead to a collapse but we are not yet there,” he added.
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