The exodus of tens of thousands of Muslims from the Central African Republic amounts to ethnic cleansing, Amnesty International has said, warning that the sectarian bloodshed now under way despite the presence of thousands of peacekeepers is a “tragedy of historic proportions”.
Their report yesterday came as United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon expressed fears that the violence ravaging the republic could ultimately divide the country into a Muslim north and a Christian south as “the sectarian brutality is changing the country’s demography”.
“We cannot just continue to say ‘never again’. This we have said so many times,” Mr Ban said. “We must act concertedly and now to avoid continued atrocities on a massive scale.”
More than 1,000 people have been killed since sectarian fighting erupted in early December and nearly one million in a country 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 not only from 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, UN and French officials have warned that a genocide could be looming in the 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 afflicting 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 organisation in Bangui, the capital of the 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.
“The mass killing of civilians, destructions of homes, businesses and mosques and other means used by the anti-Balaka to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the Central African Republic of its Muslim population constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes,” Amnesty said.