BANGUI: Thousands of Muslims fled for their lives from the capital of Central African Republic on Friday, climbing aboard trucks guarded by heavily armed Chadian forces. One man who fell off a truck was subsequently killed and his body mutilated, highlighting the savagery faced by those Muslims who stayed behind.
The convoy of some 500 cars, trucks and motorcycles made its way toward Chad, a predominantly Muslim neighboring country. Crowds of Christians cheered as the convoy passed out of town. The exodus witnessed by Associated Press journalists comes after two months of sectarian violence in the capital that has targeted Muslims accused of collaborating with the now-sidelined rebel government.
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 for 15 minutes with knives, bricks and feet. Uniformed soldiers then paraded his body through the streets before it was dismembered and set ablaze.
"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 gotten 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," he added.
Some trucks broke down even before they could leave Bangui and had to be abandoned. The passengers jumped aboard 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."
Central African Republic is a predominantly Christian country, with a sizeable Muslim population in its north near the borders with Sudan and Chad. An alliance of Muslim rebel groups from the north united to overthrow the president of a decade last March, though their grievances were political and economic - not religious.
The rebels known as Seleka quickly became bitterly despised by Christians in the capital after the fighters went on looting sprees, raping and killing civilians at random. An armed Christian movement known as the anti-Balaka, aided by loyalists of ousted President Francois Bozize, began retaliating several months later.
Christian fighters attempted to overthrow the Muslim rebel government in early December, sparking unprecedented bloodshed that left more than 1,000 people dead in a matter of days. An untold number have died in the weeks that followed, with most of the attacks in Bangui targeting Muslims.
The Muslim rebel leader who took power last March has stepped aside, and the country is currently being led by former Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza as interim president.
The United States, France and the United Nations all have condemned Wednesday's grisly slaying by armed soldiers, which took place just moments after the interim president left the scene. No one was detained in connection with the slaying, which took place in the presence of African regional peacekeepers.
"It is very unfortunate that that happened, that we were not able to quickly intervene and then save him, but things happened so quickly that we couldn't," said Eloi Yao, spokesman for the African mission known as MISCA.
Babacar Gaye, the U.N. special representative to Central African Republic, called for an investigation and said those responsible "should be made an example of."