U.N. officials warn that the country may be on the brink of genocide.
BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Hundreds of Christians went on a rampage in Central African Republic’s capital, looting and setting fire to Muslim-owned homes and businesses and threatening to go on a killing spree as the country prepared to inaugurate a new interim president Thursday.
The unrest highlights the massive challenges facing the new administration of Catherine Samba-Panza, who was chosen by a national transitional council to lead a country which U.N. officials warn may be on the brink of genocide.
Rwandan peacekeepers and French forces intervened late Wednesday to rescue about 30 Muslims trapped inside their homes by the marauding gangs in the PK13 district of Bangui, witnesses said. The help arrived after international human rights activists pleaded for help for the families.
The Masa family said it had believed their previous good relations with their neighbors would be enough to protect them. But a mob of local Christian youths outside their house raised fears of an imminent lynching, like the city had witnessed elsewhere in recent days.
“If these people are not evacuated within the next hour, they will be dead tomorrow. As soon as we leave they will be killed,” urged Peter Bouckaert, emergency director at Human Rights Watch.
As night fell, French forces provided a truck to take the family and their few belongings to a nearby Muslim refugee camp under international protection.
Many hope the inauguration of Samba-Panza will bring a relative calm to the country wracked by violence since a March 2013 coup overthrew the president of a decade. The mostly Muslim rebels who seized control became despised during their 10-month rule as unscrupulous fighters carried out scores of atrocities against the predominantly Christian civilian population. A Christian militia launched a coup attempt last month that unleashed bloodshed in the streets, leaving more than 1,000 people dead in just a few days.
The coup leader Michel Djotodia finally stepped down from power about two weeks ago under mounting international pressure. Samba-Panza’s new government is tasked with trying to organize elections by year-end.
On Wednesday, the U.N. chief’s special adviser on genocide prevention warned of a “high risk of crimes against humanity and of genocide” in the Central African Republic.
Adama Dieng and other U.N. officials briefed the U.N. Security Council on the continuing and unprecedented violence between Christians and Muslims. They spoke of children being beheaded, entire villages burned and a complete breakdown of law and order, and they urged the rapid deployment of more peacekeepers.
African countries have contributed some 4,600 peacekeepers to Central African Republic, and France also has sent 1,600 troops. Among the countries helping is Rwanda, which suffered through genocide in 1994 that left more than 500,000 people dead.
On Wednesday, a Rwandan captain in Bangui told a mob surrounding a Muslim resident’s home how his own country had suffered. Even if the pain is still there, he said, they are learning to live together again.
No one seemed to listen. Moments later, a school teacher joined women and children in looting an entire predominantly Muslim neighborhood.
“I am just stealing from the thieves,” the teacher said.