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One of the Central African Republic's most powerful armed groups announced Friday that its chief had died from wounds suffered during an attack, another blow to a rebel alliance's bid to overthrow the country's president.
Sidiki Abass, head of Return, Reclamation and Rehabilitation (3R), died on March 25, according to the rebel group, which is part of a coalition seeking to overthrow President Faustin Archange Touadera.
Abass, whose real name was Bi Sidi Souleymane, died in hospital in the country's north, it said in a statement, adding he had been "seriously wounded" during attacks in the town of Bossembele on November 16.
His group is made up largely of the Fulani ethnic group, whose members are traditionally nomadic herders.
It was initially formed to ostensibly defend the Fulani in the country's northwest, where conflicts between nomadic herders and farmers are common.
In December, 3R joined with the Coalition of Patriots for Change, an alliance of some of the war-torn country's most powerful armed groups.
The alliance launched an offensive two weeks before December presidential elections in a bid to prevent a victory by Touadera and to overturn his government.
The well-equipped 3R were on the frontlines of combat against pro-government forces, eventually reaching an area about 100 kilometres (about 60 miles) from the capital Bangui.
UN and security sources disputed the group's claim that Abass had been wounded on November 16 -- before the rebel offensive -- and instead dated it to the initial fighting in December, when his convoy was ambushed.
Rumours of his death had spread since, but were never confirmed by 3R.
The country's military with the help of hundreds of Rwandan soldiers and Russian paramilitaries have led a counter-offensive since January, taking back most towns previously occupied by the rebels.
While the 3R has been pushed back, it remains a force in the northwest, aided by its knowledge of the terrain.
- War crime accusations -
Abass's group has in the past been accused of war crimes, and judicial sources said he had been the target of an investigation for the country's Special Criminal Court, set up to probe serious human rights violations committed since 2003.
In 2019, Human Rights Watch accused 3R of killing at least 46 civilians in Ouham Pende province in the country's northwest.
The killings occurred just a few months after Abass had signed a peace deal in Khartoum with the Central African government and 13 other armed groups.
"The killings of these civilians are war crimes that need to be effectively investigated and those responsible brought to justice," Human Rights Watch said at the time.
Despite that, 3R remained part of the Khartoum agreement and continued to hold sway in the northwest, where it controls taxes on the lucrative movement of cattle from neighbouring Cameroon and Chad.
Relations between Abass and the government deteriorated, and in June 2020 UN troops launched an operation against 3R bases in the northwest to free roads where illegal checkpoints had been set up to collect tolls.
But 3R militia fighters continued to fuel insecurity in the region, carrying out attacks on convoys, leading to the death of a Rwandan peacekeeper in July 2020.
Violence in recent months is just the latest flare-up in a civil war that has lasted eight years since the ouster of president Francois Bozize.
Bozize had seized power in the former French colony in 2003 and was ousted a decade later, an act that sparked a civil war along sectarian lines.
A spokesman for Bozize said in March that the ex-president had agreed to take charge of the rebel alliance.