Central African Republic bloodshed declared ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the UN
'Tragedy of historic proportions' tearing apart the Central African Republic
Associated Press in Dakar
The exodus of tens of thousands of Muslims from the Central African Republic amounts to "ethnic cleansing", according to a top United Nations official and Amnesty International.
The rights group has warned that the sectarian bloodshed now under way in the country despite the presence of thousands of peacekeepers was a "tragedy of historic proportions".
In a visit to the lawless capital of Bangui, UN high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres said "ethnic-religious cleansing" threatened to tear apart the country, and he called for the international community to help the interim government restore order.
His trip comes a day after the UN chief used his strongest language yet to describe the humanitarian crisis.
"We cannot just continue to say 'never again'. This, we have said so many times," UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said late on Tuesday. "We must act concertedly and now to avoid continued atrocities on a massive scale."
More than 1,000 Christians and Muslims have been killed since fighting erupted in early December and nearly one million people in the nation of 4.6 million have fled their homes.
The country's Muslim minority, about 15 per cent of the population, has come under growing attack from Christian militias and 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, UN and French officials have warned that a genocide could be looming in the Central African Republic, and Amnesty's report using the term "ethnic cleansing" is among the strongest language invoked yet to describe the inter-communal violence now devastating the country.
While it was a big step to use the term, it was justified "given the level of violent and purposeful forced displacement we've been seeing", said Joanne Mariner, senior crisis adviser for Amnesty International in Bangui, the Central African Republic capital.
"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 militias known as the anti-Balaka, or anti-machete, who stepped up their attacks as a Muslim rebel government crumbled in January.
At the time, rights groups warned that the Muslim minority would be especially vulnerable to retaliatory attacks as many Christians blamed them for supporting the brutal regime of the Seleka rebels who seized power in March last year.
Some attacks have taken place in front of peacekeepers unable to halt the bloodshed. In one case, Burundian troops withdrew as a frenetic mob of soldiers from the national army trampled and stabbed a suspected Muslim rebel to death.