Report: Armed groups loot schools, threaten teachers and students in Central African Republic

Armed groups in conflict-torn Central African Republic are looting schools, threatening teachers and students, and stealing food and education kits destined for youngsters, an international network of human rights groups said.

The Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict said in a new report Thursday that the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel coalition and the anti-Balaka Christian militia have stripped some schools bare, taking doors, desks, roofs, books and office materials. In recent months, it said, they have been targeting newly rehabilitated schools, disrupting efforts to resume education in the impoverished nation.

The report also criticized African Union, French and U.N. peacekeeping troops for establishing temporary bases in school facilities, but it noted that fewer incidents were reported in recent months.

The Watchlist conducted a five-week research mission to four areas in Central African Republic to investigate the high number of attacks and military use of schools, interviewing 178 people including 22 students and 57 school staff.

According to an assessment released by education experts in the country in April, roughly 29.6 percent of the 335 schools surveyed were attacked and 8.4 percent were used by armed groups and international peacekeeping forces between 2012 and April 2015.

Central African Republic has been rocked by violence since Seleka rebels toppled the president in 2013. Widespread human rights abuses committed by Seleka led to the formation of the anti-Balaka Christian militia which unleashed sectarian fighting that has forced hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians to flee to neighboring countries.

Lithuania's U.N. Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite, who heads the U.N. Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against Central African Republic and just returned from a visit, said she was told that half the population is under the age of 14 and about 60 percent of children are illiterate. She said reintegrating and educating 10,000 children in armed groups is a major challenge.

Janine Morna, who led the research mission, said many students and teachers returned to school for the 2014-2015 academic year "but remain vulnerable to attack."

She said between 78 percent and 88 percent of schools are officially open, but because of the persistent threats of attack attendance is sparse and intermittent.

Morna urged the country's transitional government to ban the use of schools by militias and the military during conflict and take steps to protect them.