Amnesty: Exodus of thousands of Muslims in C. African Republic amounts to 'ethnic cleansing'

The Associated Press

A Muslim man rests on his bow and arrows inside the mosque at PK12, the last checkpoint at the exit of the town, Tuesday Feb. 11, 2014, where he and 3500 other Muslims have sought refuge from sectarian violence, awaiting for transport from Bangui, Central African Republic, to neighboring Chad. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

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By KRISTA LARSON, Associated Press

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The exodus of tens of thousands of Muslims from Central African Republic amounts to "ethnic cleansing," Amnesty International said Wednesday, warning that the sectarian bloodshed now underway despite the presence of thousands of peacekeepers is a "tragedy of historic proportions."

Their report comes as the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed fears that the violence ravaging Central African Republic could ultimately divide the country in two.

"We cannot just continue to say 'never again.' This, we have said so many times," Ban said late Tuesday. "We must act concertedly and now to avoid continued atrocities on a massive scale."

Meanwhile, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pledged Wednesday on a visit to Central African Republic to continue disarming both Muslim and Christian fighters.

"No one accepts or will accept a partition" into a Muslim north and Christian south, he said.

More than 1,000 people have been killed since sectarian fighting erupted in early December and nearly 1 million in this country of 4.6 million have fled their homes.

The country's Muslim minority, about 15 percent of the population, has come under growing attack from not only Christian militiamen but also from mobs of civilians who have carried out public killings on a nearly daily basis in recent weeks. In most cases, the bodies of Muslim victims were mutilated and sometimes dragged through the streets or set on fire.

For months, U.N. and French officials have warned that a genocide could be looming in Central African Republic, and Amnesty's use of the term "ethnic cleansing" is among the strongest language invoked yet to describe the inter-communal violence now wracking the country.

Amnesty International said that while it is a big step to use the term, it is justified "given the level of violent and purposeful forced displacement we've been seeing," said Joanne Mariner, senior crisis adviser for the organization in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic.

"The exodus of Muslims from the Central African Republic is a tragedy of historic proportions. Not only does the current pattern of ethnic cleansing do tremendous damage to the Central African Republic itself, it sets a terrible precedent for other countries in the region, many of which are already struggling with their own sectarian and inter-ethnic conflicts," the report said.

The wave of violence against Muslim civilians is being committed by Christian militiamen known as the anti-Balaka, or anti-machete, who stepped up their attacks as a Muslim rebel government crumbled in January. Rights groups at the time warned that the Muslim minority would be especially vulnerable to retaliatory attacks as many Christians blamed them for supporting the brutal Muslim regime of the Seleka rebels who seized power in March 2013.

Some of the attacks have taken place in front of peacekeepers who were unable to halt the bloodshed. In one highly publicized case, Burundian peacekeepers withdrew from the scene as a frenetic mob of soldiers from the national army stomped and stabbed a suspected Muslim rebel to death.

In recent days, thousands of Muslims have climbed aboard trucks destined for neighboring Chad, a predominantly Muslim country whose soldiers have provided armed protection to the refugee convoys.

Muslim victims have been buried within 24 hours, and with violence sending survivors fleeing for their lives it has been nearly impossible to determine how many have died nationwide since sectarian bloodshed erupted in early December when the Muslim Seleka government began weakening. Amnesty said it alone had been able to document the deaths of more than 200 Muslims.

Some of those killed lost their lives even as they tried in vain to reach safety in the neighboring countries of Chad or Cameroon. At least 20 Muslims were killed last month as group tried to flee the town of Bouar.