Hundreds of people have tried to flee inter-religious violence in Central African Republic on board emergency flights to neighbouring Chad, while nearby countries appealed for help to rescue their citizens from the mounting humanitarian crisis.
The exodus on Saturday is a result of tit-for-tat violence between Seleka rebels, who seized power in March, and armed groups have killed more than 1,000 people this month in the riverside capital Bangui and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
Fighting in the former French colony has surged in recent weeks despite the presence of 1,600 French peacekeepers and nearly 4,000 African Union troops deployed under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians. Bangui was calm on Saturday after many days of violence.
The ‘anti-balaka’ armed group have targeted Muslims they say have supported Seleka during months of looting and killing since March.
With many Seleka gunmen coming from Chad, its citizens in particular have been singled out, prompting their government to charter flights this week to bring them home.
However, many of those who waited in the heat at Bangui airport were Muslim Central Africans who said they were fleeing their majority-Christian homeland for fear of reprisals.
“We have never known violence as barbaric as this,” said Aishatou Abdelkarim, 31, who said she was married to a Chadian. “The devil has taken control of our country.”
Chad’s Foreign Minister Moussa Faki said some 4,000 Chadians had been transported home so far, many of whom had lived in Central African Republic their whole lives.
More than 800,000 people have fled their homes during this month’s fighting, with about half of them seeking refuge in Bangui, the UN says.
Many say the bloodshed has little to do with religion in a nation where Muslims and Christians have long lived in peace.
Instead, they blame a political battle for control over resources in one of Africa’s most weakly governed states.
Chad’s Foreign Minister Faki said toppled President Francois Bozize was responsible for the surge in violence in recent weeks and was using the anti-balaka to undermine interim President Michel Djotodia, Seleka’s leader.
French President Francois Hollande told UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon by telephone on Friday he wanted greater UN involvement in Central African Republic.
Ban is preparing a proposal for a possible UN peacekeeping mission.
Two Congolese peacekeepers were killed when they were attacked by unidentified gunmen late on Thursday, a day after six Chadian peacekeepers were killed, a spokesman for the African Union’s MISCA peacekeeping mission said.