CARNOT, Central African Republic: Christian militiamen killed at least 70 people in the remote southwest of Central African Republic, at one point ordering a group of Muslims to lie on the ground and shooting them one by one, witnesses said Monday. The militiamen, known as the anti-Balaka, slaughtered the Muslims in the village of Guen earlier this month, a Catholic priest, the Rev. Rigobert Dolongo, who helped bury the bodies, told the Associated Press. At least 27 people were slain in the first day of the attack, while 43 others were killed on the second day, he said.
Ibrahim Aboubakar, 22, said the anti-Balaka stormed Guen and killed his two older brothers after they were heard speaking in Arabic.
“Later that day they rounded up dozens of people and forced them all to lie down on their stomachs. Then they shot them one by one,” he said from the refuge of a Catholic church in Carnot, about 100 kilometers away, where he is among 800 seeking shelter from attack.
At least two other families who survived the attack are here now, including Gisma Ahmad, who is now a widow at 18 with two young children. Sitting in the shade breastfeeding a 4-month-old while her 3-year-old daughter played nearby, she could only weep when asked about the killings. Relatives said that her husband was shot while trying to flee.
Hundreds of Muslims remain in Guen, hiding in the town’s Catholic church and also at the imam’s home.
Those Muslims still in Guen appealed by telephone for African peacekeepers in Carnot to rescue them, according to two Muslim residents who insisted on anonymity because they feared for their lives. They also confirmed that heavily armed anti-Balaka were still in control of the village Tuesday. The local commander for the peacekeeping mission said he needed permission from his supervisors in the capital, Bangui, to go to Guen.
Like much of the violence in Central African Republic, the true toll from the attack on Guen may never be known. Most survivors fled deep into the rural bush, hiking to safety in towns further west.
News of the massacre came as the head of France’s peacekeeping mission in the country denied claims by rights groups of ethnic cleansing, but admitted Muslims are under “intense pressure.”
“There is no ethnic cleansing in the country. Some sections, especially Muslims, have been subjected to intense pressure from certain armed militias,” General Francisco Soriano told Europe 1 radio.
Soriano, the head of France’s Sangaris force, which was deployed in December, said Muslims from neighboring countries – especially Chad – had been evacuated.
But while some Muslims “are scared and some have been displaced, others have remained and are protected by other communities,” he said.
Amnesty said this month there was “ethnic cleansing” underway in the country, wracked by coups and political turmoil for decades.
The impoverished country descended into chaos last March after a rebellion overthrew the government, sparking deadly violence between the Christian majority and Muslim minority that has uprooted a million people out of a population of 4.6 million.
Experts have suggested that the religious conflict could fuel Islamic militancy in a volatile region at the heart of Africa. There have been no reports to date of Islamist fighters operating on the ground in Central African Republic.
Amid rising concern among Muslims abroad, Afghanistan’s insurgent Taliban accused major countries and aid organizations of standing by in the face of a “genocide” against Muslims in the Central, in a statement issued at the weekend.
“The genocide and forced migration of the Muslims ... poses a danger to the peaceful life and co-existence of Muslims and Christians throughout Africa,” the Taliban said in a rare statement addressing matters outside Afghanistan.