European timber firms help fund C.Africa conflict: watchdog

Anti-Balaka militia members rest on the outskirts of Bambari, on July 31, 2014 (AFP Photo/Andoni Lubaki) (AFP/File)

Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) - European timber companies have helped fund the conflict in the Central African Republic by doing business with logging firms that have paid millions of euros (dollars) to rebels, according to a watchdog group report released Wednesday.

The money has gone to support "rebels guilty of mass murder, kidnappings, rapes and the forced recruitment of child soldiers," Global Witness campaign leader Alexandra Pardal said.

"These companies should be tried as accessories to war crimes," she added.

Thousands died in violence and hundreds of thousands remain displaced from their homes since a March 2013 coup. Atrocities committed by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels led to reprisals by vigilantes, so-called anti-Balaka, from the Christian majority.

European firms do business with Central African Republic (CAR) companies that paid -- in 2013 alone -- 3.4 million euros ($3.7 million) to rebels in order to continue logging illegally, said the report titled "Blood Timber."

Global Witness said the CAR companies paid bribes to get through roadblocks, for armed escort and for protection of their logging sites.

The logging industry is one of the primary resources of the restive, landlocked country of nearly five million, which is hard hit by poverty. Diamonds pulled from the ground in African nations have been exported in a similar type of trafficking.

Official CAR statistics suggest 59 percent of the timber exports go to Europe. About 32 percent of total exports head to Germany, 20 percent to France and some five percent to Britain, said Global Witness.

The first beneficiaries of the money were Seleka rebels, who were chased from power in early 2014 by an international intervention to stop the bloody sectarian conflict, the report said.

"But armed gangs still partition the country, killing, looting and terrorising local population," Global witness said. "Logging payments to Seleka's rivals, the anti-Balaka, have helped the group maintain their presence... in the southwest."