Peacekeeping troops have escorted around 1,300 Muslims out of the Central African Republic’s capital city, removing one of the last pockets of Muslims from Bangui, in a nation torn apart by religious violence.
Peacekeepers stood by on Sunday, as Christians, some armed with machetes and bows and arrows, swarmed into and looted houses in Bangui’s northern PK12 neighbourhood, which had been a Muslim district in the majority Christian south.
“We are leaving to save our lives,” Mohamed Ali Mohamed, who was born and brought up in the area, told Reuters news agency as fellow Muslims tied jerry cans to trucks ahead of the trip.
Foreign troops have escorted thousands of Muslims to relative safety in the north of the Central African Republic.
But some leaders fear that will make permanent divisions that have led to talk of partition after 18 months of conflict.
Central African Republic’s minister for reconciliation last week criticised the evacuations, warning they would play into the hands of Muslim rebels who want to create an independent state in the north.
Auguste Boukanga, president of the URD party which remained neutral in the conflict, echoed these concerns, calling on the 2,000 French and over 5,000 African peacekeepers to instead stick to their mandate of disarming the gunmen.
Giuseppe Loprete, head of the local office of the International Organisation for Migration, the UN agency involved in the evacuation, said Muslims living near the central mosque and in PK5, another Bangui neighbourhood, did not want to leave.
“We are working on social cohesion … I’m not sure that they want to leave. Actually they told us they prefer to stay in Bangui,” he said.
Some of the departing Muslims torched their cars as they could not take them in the convoy but did not want Christians to be able to use them once they had left.
Mainly Muslim rebels, known as Seleka, seized Bangui last year after complaining they had been marginalised by President Francois Bozize’s government. Their time in power was marked by abuses and killings that led to the creation of Christian self-defence militia.
Seleka leader Michel Djotodia stepped down in January under international pressure as violence spiralled out of control. Interim authorities, backed by French and African peacekeepers, are still struggling to restore order and rights groups say parts of the country have experienced “religious cleansing”.
“It is a shame but there is nothing we can do,” said Dieudonne Bignilaba, a Christian resident. “For many years we lived together but they were the ones who brought the weapons here to kill us.”
After watching their former neighbours leave, from behind a thin white rope barrier put up by Congolese peacekeepers, hundreds of Christians, including women and children, took part in the looting. Many chanted “Liberation, Liberation!”