International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said yesterday she has opened an initial probe into "serious crimes" committed in the Central African Republic, the scene of spiralling sectarian violence.
The announcement came as thousands of Muslims fled for their lives from the capital yesterday, with Christian crowds cheering as truckloads of Muslim families made their way out of Bangui.
One man who fell off a truck was subsequently killed and his body mutilated, highlighting the savagery faced by those Muslims who stayed behind.
"My office has reviewed many reports detailing acts of extreme brutality... and allegations of serious crimes being committed. I have therefore decided to open a preliminary investigation into this... situation," Bensouda said in a statement in The Hague.
"The plight of civilians in CAR... has gone from bad to worse," she added.
The United Nation's refugee agency said yesterday around 20,000 people have now fled to Cameroon to escape communal bloodshed in the country following a coup in March last year that ousted long-time leader Francois Bozize.
Yesterday's convoy of 500 cars, trucks and motorcycles was guarded by heavily armed soldiers from Chad, a neighbouring predominantly Muslim country. The exodus comes after two months of sectarian violence in Bangui that has targeted Muslims accused of collaborating with the now-sidelined rebel government.
Despite the presence of French and African peacekeeping troops, violence continues in the country and has already forced about a quarter of the population of 4.6 million from their homes.
In recent weeks, angry mobs have set fire to mosques and have brutally killed and mutilated Muslims. On Wednesday, one Muslim suspected of having aided last year's rebellion was attacked with knives, bricks and feet. Soldiers then paraded his body through the streets before it was dismembered and set on fire.
"It really is a horrific situation. All over Bangui, entire Muslim neighborhoods are being destroyed and emptied," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, who has got trapped Muslims to safety under the guard of peacekeepers.
"Their buildings are being destroyed and being taken apart, brick by brick, roof by roof, to wipe out any sign of their once existence in this country."
Some trucks broke down even before they could leave Bangui yesterday and had to be abandoned. The passengers jumped on other trucks, facing constant jeering, threats and stone throwing from the watching crowd.
"The Christians say the Muslims must go back where they came from, that's why we are going home," said Osmani Benui as she fled Bangui. "We had no possibility to stay on because we had no protection."