BANGUI: African Union peacekeepers Wednesday uncovered a mass grave at a military camp in Bangui occupied by the Muslim Seleka rebels, as a top U.N. official warned Central African Republic was succumbing to “ethnic-religious cleansing.”
A Reuters witness saw four separate shallow graves containing at least a dozen bodies at the military camp in the 200 Villas neighborhood of central Bangui, where some Seleka fighters are still stationed.
Pastor Antoine Mboa Bogo, head of the local Red Cross, confirmed there was a mass grave at the camp but said his staff had not yet had time to determine the number of dead.
“We need to send in a team with the proper equipment tomorrow to examine it,” he said.
On a visit to Bangui, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called for a massive deployment of international peacekeepers to restore stability in a country gripped by violence since March, when Seleka seized power.
Months of looting, rape and murder followed, bringing international pressure that saw Seleka leader Michel Djotodia resign in January. Since then, Christian militia have carried out systematic attacks on Muslims, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee the country.
“We are witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe in Central African Republic,” Guterres told reporters. “There is an ethnic-religious cleansing taking place.”
His comments were echoed by a report released Wednesday by Amnesty International that said the exodus of tens of thousands of Muslims from Central African Republic amounts to “ethnic cleansing.”
“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.
More than 1,000 people have been killed since sectarian fighting erupted in early December and nearly 1 million in this country of 4.6 million have fled their homes.
The country’s Muslim minority, about 15 percent of the population, has come under growing attack from not only 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, U.N. and French officials have warned that a genocide could be looming in Central African Republic, and the use of the term “ethnic cleansing” is among the strongest language invoked yet to describe the intercommunal violence now wracking 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 organization in Bangui.
“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 interethnic conflicts,” the report said.
The new president of the Central African Republic vowed war Wednesday against the anti-balaka.
“We are going to go to war against the anti-balaka,” Catherine Samba Panza said.
“They think that because I’m a woman, I’m weak. But now the anti-balaka who want to kill, will themselves be hunted,” she said.
“The anti-balaka have lost their sense of mission. They are now the ones who kill, who pillage, who are violent,” Samba Panza said.
But she rejected the “ethnic cleansing” label.
“I don’t think there is any religious or ethnic cleansing. This is a security problem,” she said.
The transitional president, who took power last month, was joined on stage by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
France has grown increasingly strident in its calls for action against the anti-balaka in recent days, fearing that the violence could lead to partition of the country.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also expressed fears that the violence 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,” Ban said late Tuesday. “We must act concertedly and now to avoid continued atrocities on a massive scale.”
Samba Panza’s speech coincided with the launch of one of the largest emergency food airlifts ever undertaken by the United Nations, as supplies arrived in Bangui from neighboring Cameroon.
The World Food Program’s first cargo aircraft, loaded with 80 tons of rice, landed in the early afternoon, WFP spokesman Alexis Masciarelli told AFP.
He said there will be 24 daily supply drops to the city, but admitted it was still not enough to meet the desperate need in the country.
“This is a rather exceptional operation, our biggest emergency air operation in a long time, bigger than for Syria and the Philippines,” Masciarelli said.
But he admitted the operation “would not completely solve the problem” in CAR, where 1.3 million people – more than a quarter of the country’s population – is in need of food assistance.
The WFP says a total of 1,800 tons of rice will be flown in from Douala in Cameroon, enough for just 150,000 people.