BANGUI - Thousands of Muslims have fled for their lives from the capital of Central African Republic (CAR), with Christian crowds cheering as the truckloads of families made their way out of town.
One man who fell off a truck in Bangui on Friday was subsequently killed and his body mutilated.
The exodus came as the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said that she had opened a preliminary investigation into potential war crimes or crimes against humanity in the country.
Fatou Bensouda said on Friday that the situation for civilians in the country has “gone from bad to worse” since September 2012, and she had recently received reports of “extreme brutality by various groups”.
The convoy of fleeing Muslims was made up of some 500 cars, trucks and motorcycles, and was guarded by heavily-armed soldiers from Chad, a neighbouring and predominantly Muslim country.
The exodus witnessed by AP news agency journalists comes after two months of sectarian violence in the capital that has targeted Muslims accused of collaborating with a now-sidelined government.
In recent weeks, angry mobs have set fire to mosques and have killed and mutilated Muslims. On Wednesday, one Muslim suspected of having aided last year’s rebellion was attacked for 15 minutes with knives, bricks and feet.
Uniformed soldiers then paraded his body through the streets before it was dismembered and set ablaze.
“It really is a horrific situation. All over Bangui, entire Muslim neighbourhoods are being destroyed and emptied,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, who has helped trapped Muslims to safety under the guard of peacekeepers.
“Their buildings are being destroyed and being taken apart, brick by brick, roof by roof, to wipe out any sign of their once existence in this country.”
Some trucks broke down even before they could leave Bangui on Friday and had to be abandoned. The passengers jumped aboard other trucks, facing constant jeering, threats and stone-throwing from the watching crowd.
“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 had no possibility to stay on because we had no protection.’’
Central African Republic is a predominantly Christian country, with a sizeable Muslim population in its north near the borders with Sudan and Chad.
While some of those fleeing have ties to Chad, many of the Muslims who lived in the capital had been there for generations.
An alliance of Muslim rebel groups from the north united to overthrow President Francois Bozize, who had been in power for a decade, last March, though their grievances were political and economic — not religious.
The rebels known as Seleka were aided by Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, and quickly became bitterly 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 the ousted president, began retaliating several months later.
Christian fighters attempted to overthrow the Muslim rebel government in early December, sparking unprecedented bloodshed that left more than 1,000 people dead in a matter of days.
An unknown number have died in the weeks that followed, with most of the attacks in Bangui targeting Muslims.
The Muslim rebel leader who took power last March has stepped aside, and the country is currently being led by former Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza as interim president.