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Thousands of Muslims try to flee CAR capital

By Krista Larson

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 14 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

French troops watch thousands of Muslim residents from Bangui and Mbaiki fleeing the Central African Republic capital Bangui in a mass exodus using cars, pickups, trucks, lorries and motorcycles, Friday Feb. 7, 2014. Tit-for-tat violence killed more than 1,000 people in Bangui alone in a matter of days in December. An untold number have died in the weeks that followed, with most of the attacks in Bangui targeting Muslims.

Jerome Delay, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

BANGUI, Central African Republic — Thousands of Muslims who tried to flee the sectarian violence in Central African Republic's capital were turned back by peacekeepers Friday, as crowds of angry Christians shouted "we're going to kill you all." The convoy stopped before entering a neighborhood wracked by fresh fighting.

Some cars carried as many as 10 people as the convoy made its way through Bangui, the second such mass exodus in a week. Christians gathered alongside the road to taunt the Muslims, many of whom have been targeted by murderous mobs in recent weeks.

But the convoy, which stretched as far as the eye could see, was turned back because peacekeepers feared it would be attacked when going through some volatile parts of Bangui.

The procession of vehicles was halted in the Miskine neighborhood, where one vehicle tumbled into a ditch on the side of the road. On the orders of a Burundian captain, African peacekeepers went vehicle-to-vehicle instructing everyone to return to a local mosque, according to an Associated Press journalist at the scene.

Peacekeepers stopped the group before they passed through neighborhoods where fresh fighting had erupted Friday. At least one person was killed there in a grenade attack by Christian militiamen, according to witnesses at a nearby mosque. French peacekeepers had to evacuate two other severely wounded people from an angry crowd that had set tires on fire and was shouting anti-Muslim and anti-French slogans.

"The convoy escorted by Burundian forces returned to its departure point because of a problem in a neighborhood on the north end of the city where the Muslims would have had to pass through," said Lt. Rosana Nsengimana with the African peacekeeping force known as MISCA.

Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled for their lives as Christian militiamen and crowds of angry civilians have stepped up their attacks in recent weeks. Muslims have been killed by mobs almost every day and their bodies have been mutilated and dragged through the capital's streets, despite the presence of peacekeepers.

Victims have been accused of supporting the Muslim Seleka government forced from power last month. The Seleka rebels cited economic and political grievances, not religious ideology, in overthrowing the president of a decade. However, they became deeply despised and their armed fighters are accused of scores of human rights abuses against the country's Christian majority during their 10-month rule.

The violence against Muslims and their current exodus from Central African Republic is tantamount to "ethnic cleansing,"according to warnings issued earlier this week by a top United Nations official and Amnesty International. The head of the French mission in Central African Republic has called the Christian militiamen an "enemies of the peace," even though they started out as a way to protect Christians against the attacks by Muslim rebels.

Before the crisis, Muslims made up about 15 percent of Central African Republic's 4.6 million people. Entire neighborhoods of Bangui are now empty. Only one mosque now remains in the town of Yaloke, where previously there had been eight, according to Human Rights Watch. Most of the displaced Muslims have headed to Chad, a neighboring country that is predominantly Muslim and whose military has provided armed guards for departing convoys.

Outside the capital, an untold number of other Muslims remain in hiding in other communities under the control of Christian militiamen, some seeking refuge inside churches offering protection. Nearly 1,000 people — mostly Muslims — are under threat in the southwestern town of Carnot, said Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders.

"Armed men have announced that they intend to track down and kill all the city's Muslims," the organization warned Thursday. "Anyone who hides Muslims is also at risk."

The organization said Christian militiamen had invaded hospitals in search of Muslims who had sought treatment and refuge. In another attack, the Christian fighters seized control of the town's airstrip, blocking outgoing flights of wounded patients, MSF said.

France strengthened its presence in its former colony to 1,600 troops in early December, who are joined by nearly 6,000 African peacekeepers. The U.N. Secretary-General has dispatched an envoy to the country to consult with the African Union about possibly transforming the African force there into a U.N. peacekeeping force.

While such a mission would be well equipped, it could take up to six months to get a U.N. peacekeeping force on the ground. Ban also has asked France about whether it would consider deploying additional troops.

Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press Writer Hippolyte Marboua in Bangui, Central African Republic contributed to this report. Follow Jerome Delay on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeromedelay.

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