UN chief heading to conflict-torn Central African Republic

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday he is going to conflict-torn Central African Republic next week to spotlight growing communal tensions, spreading violence and deteriorating humanitarian situation as well as highlight the work of U.N. peacekeepers.

He said at a news conference that since Jan. 1 the number of internally displaced people has almost doubled to 600,000 and the number of refugees who have fled the country has surpassed 500,000. So far this year, 12 peacekeepers have been killed by hostile acts and 12 humanitarian workers have also been killed, "making it one of the world's most dangerous places for aid workers to serve," he said.

Central African Republic has been wracked by violence between Muslims and Christians since 2013, when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels overthrew the Christian president and seized power. Anti-Balaka militias, mostly Christians, fought back, resulting in thousands of deaths, the displacement of hundreds of thousands more, and the flight of many Muslims to the country's north and across the border into Chad and Cameroon.

Despite peaceful elections in early 2016, sectarian violence has moved into the impoverished country's central and southeastern regions, prompting warnings of a national conflict roaring back to life.

Guterres said his visit "will be an opportunity to engage with the government and others in order to ease suffering, halt the current backsliding, and strengthen international support for peace."

The secretary-general recommended in a new report to the Security Council that the U.N. peacekeeping force in Central African Republic be increased by 900 soldiers, to a total of 11,650.

The United States has been seeking to cut the costs of U.N. peacekeeping operations, but Guterres said Wednesday that "there is a need to increase the capacity of our troops in Central African Republic to protect civilians."

"So I am convinced that there will be a very positive understanding of all the members of the Security Council, including the United States of America, in relation to this," he said.

Guterres said U.N. peacekeepers throughout the world "show tremendous courage in volatile environments and great dedication in helping countries rise from the depths of armed conflict." Since the beginning of the year, 67 have died in the line of duty, he said.

The secretary-general said he is also "pained" that the tremendous sacrifice of peacekeepers has been tarnished by "appalling acts" of sexual abuse, including in Central African Republic.

Guterres will be accompanied on his trip by the United Nations' first victims' rights advocate, Jane Connors, and he said he is ready to meet victims of sexual abuse and their families "in and beyond the Central African Republic."