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Local official dies following ambush in troubled Casamance

Country Map - Senegal (Casamance)
Senegal's troubled Casamance province (IRIN)

A top government official in Senegal’s troubled southern Casamance region has died after an attack by armed assailants - continuing a long pattern of violence in a region still chasing stability a year after the signing of a peace accord between the government and separatists.

Gorgui Mbengue, the number-two government official in the district of Diouloulou, died of gunshot wounds in hospital in the Casamance capital, Ziguinchor, on Monday evening, shortly after being released by armed men who ambushed his vehicle about 50 kilometres northwest of Ziguinchor. Two of the three other passengers were injured.

The attack - one of several in recent days - comes on the heels of a “peace march” in Ziguinchor on Friday that marked the one-year anniversary of a ground-breaking accord signed by the Senegalese government and the Movement for the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) to end more than two decades of secessionist trouble.

The MFDC took up arms in 1982 for the independence of the lush region separated by the rest of Senegal by the sliver of land that forms the Gambia.

While some locals blamed the separatists for the ambush, the MFDC issued a statement on Monday denying involvement and police have not formally identified the authors of Monday’s attack.

Factions of the splintered separatist movement have been suspected of armed attacks on civilians in the past but the MFDC officially has repeatedly denounced such action.

One year after the signing of the peace deal, thousands of the some 50,000 people displaced by the Casamance conflict have yet to return home, landmines - which began to appear in the 1990s - continue to deprive subsistence farmers of their land, and armed attacks have increased over the past several months.

Bourama Badji, a truck driver on the long road linking Ziguinchor to the Senegalese capital, Dakar, says the violence remains a huge obstacle to stability.

“We have seen more than 20 hold-ups [on roads within Casamance] that have caused enormous human and material losses,” he told IRIN last week. “This shows that peace has not yet become real in Casamance despite last year’s accord.”

The government and MFDC were scheduled last week to begin a second round of negotiations on implementing the 2004 peace deal - which followed two other failed agreements in the 1990s - but the talks have been put off to early February.

Casamance remains a sensitive issue for the Senegalese government, which in November ordered a private radio station shut down after the station aired an interview with the leader of the MFDC's armed wing.

With the conflict taking a heavy toll on the economy and the once-thriving tourism industry, residents are desperate for peace. Dominique Sagna of Ziguinchor told IRIN, “We are beginning to sense peace. We must not revive old demons.”

Abdoulaye Tendeng meanwhile dreams of returning to his crops. He has been forced to seek odd jobs in Ziguinchor because the small portion of his 20 hectares he can cultivate is not sufficient to feed his family.

“Since 1995, I cultivate less than one-third of my land because of landmines,” he said. “I’m not able to produce even half of what my family needs.”

The conditions are making it difficult for Casamance’s population to revive a region that once was Senegal’s breadbasket and top tourist attraction.

Last year’s peace accord opened the way for investment in the region’s reconstruction, but recovery will be a long and difficult process, residents and aid workers say.

Demba Keita, secretary general of an aid group that helps affected families rebuild their homes, told IRIN, “Thousands of Casamancais remain in exile and we must help them to return.

“Their return is part of the return of peace. Certainly NGOs and the government have made strides in this direction but there is much work to be done.”

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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