BANGUI, Central African Republic — Thousands of Muslims climbed aboard trucks protected by heavily armed Chadian soldiers in an exodus Friday from Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic. Their flight follows months of escalating attacks on anyone perceived as supporting a now-defunct Muslim rebel government blamed for scores of atrocities during its rule of the predominantly Christian country.
In The Hague, Netherlands, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced a preliminary investigation into potential war crimes or crimes against humanity in the nation, saying the crisis has “gone from bad to worse” since September.
Along the streets of Bangui, Christians cheered the convoy’s departure for neighboring Chad, which is mostly Muslim. It was a bitter send-off for the Muslims, who had in some cases lived alongside Christians for generations and have few ties to Chad.
The dangers for those who stayed behind were clear: One man who tumbled off the precariously overloaded trucks was brutally slain on the spot, witnesses said.
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“He didn’t even have the time to fall; he landed into the hands of the angry mob who then lynched him at the scene,” said Armando Yanguendji, a resident of the Gobongo district who witnessed the attack.
“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 couldn’t stay here because we had no protection.”
The aid group Doctors Without Borders said Friday that tens of thousands of Muslims have now fled to Chad and Cameroon. And the U.N. refugee agency said that almost 9,000 people have fled to Cameroon in the past 10 days, bringing the number of refugees in Cameroon to 22,000 since the current violence began.
The dangers are not limited to the capital. Communities remain trapped in parts of northwest Central African Republic, according to Doctors Without Borders. A Muslim community of more than 8,000 people in Bouar “remains effectively imprisoned, unable to flee the violence.”
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said that nearly 840,000 people remain displaced inside the country, and “with no immediate prospect to return home as the rainy season begins, the refugee agency fears a worsening crisis.”
In announcing the International Criminal Court’s preliminary investigation, prosecutor Fatou Bensouda cited reports of “hundreds of killings, acts of rape and sexual slavery, destruction of property, pillaging, torture, forced displacement and recruitment and use of children in hostilities.”
Although most of Central African Republic’s roughly 4.6 million citizens are Christian, there is a sizable Muslim population in its north near the borders with Sudan and Chad.
Fighting in the country has worsened since March, when an alliance of Muslim rebel groups from the north united to overthrow the president of a decade.
Although their grievances were political and economic — not religious — fighting has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone since then.
The rebels, known as Seleka, were aided by Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries. They quickly became 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 François Bozizé, began retaliating several months later.
The Muslim rebel leader who took power in March has stepped aside, and the country is being led by former Bangui Mayor Catherine Samba-Panza as interim president.
In recent weeks, mobs have set fire to mosques and killed and mutilated Muslims.