Gangs of armed bandits are terrorizing the population of the Central African Republic (CAR) as the region is torn apart by violence and lawlessness.
The masked outlaws -- known locally as "Zaraguinas" -- have become stronger and better organized than government forces, leaving local people increasingly vulnerable to grave human rights abuses.
"Zaraguinas are often better equipped with automatic weapons and have better knowledge of the terrain than government forces," said Erwin van der Borght, Director of Amnesty International's Africa Programme.
"This is coupled with an already dire situation of fighting between government forces and armed political groups."
Civilians in northern CAR are being targeted by all groups involved in the conflict. Hundreds have been killed, while rape and pillaging is widespread.
Hundreds of thousands have been left homeless by the violence and the government's failure to protect them from it. Many are internally displaced or have fled to neighbouring Chad, itself caught in a cauldron of violence.
Amid this violence, the bandits are particularly notorious for the heinous crimes they commit against the civilian population.
If the turmoil in northern CAR continues unchecked, it will have severe consequences for neighbouring countries in the region, such as Sudan, Chad and Cameroon.
The UN Security Council must immediately authorize the deployment of international troops to the CAR with a mandate to protect civilians, who are at serious risk of attacks and abductions.
Most victims of abduction have been young Mbororo children, who live mainly in north-western CAR but also in Chad, Cameroon and some West African countries. They are targeted because their families -- nomadic cattle keepers -- can sell cattle to raise hefty ransoms.
Zaraguinas target these children for as long as their parents and relatives have cows to sell. Some child abductees are reported to have been killed by the bandits after their families failed to pay ransoms.
Victims believe many Zaraguinas are local people. They speak local languages and appear to know how many cattle and other possessions their targets own. Zaraguinas usually cover their faces with turbans so as not to be recognized.
Other bandits - attracted by the vacuum of authority in the area - are reported to be coming into northern CAR from as far away as West Africa to join the Zaraguinas.
Many abductees told Amnesty International that security forces and government officials make no attempt to prevent abductions or arrest Zaraguinas. In the rare cases that they do, the bandits have more firepower and easily beat off any pursuit.
"By its inaction, the government is failing the people legally under its care," said van der Borght. "It is time for the government and the international community to take strong, concerted action. Any further delays are likely to have catastrophic consequences for the entire area."