Men gesture in front of a burning barricade during a protest against French soldiers in Bambari May 22, 2014. At least three people were killed in the Central African Republic on Thursday as Muslims with machetes and rifles clashed with French peacekeeping troops trying to disarm rebels, a rebel spokesman said. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS MILITARY)
BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Thousands of Muslims fled for their lives from the capital of Central African Republic on Friday, with Christian crowds cheering as the truckloads of Muslim families made their way out of town. One man who fell off a truck was subsequently killed and his body mutilated, highlighting the savagery faced by those Muslims who stayed behind.
The convoy of some 500 cars, trucks and motorcycles was guarded by heavily armed soldiers from Chad, a neighboring predominantly Muslim country. The exodus witnessed by Associated Press journalists comes after two months of sectarian violence in Central African Republic's capital that has targeted Muslims accused of collaborating with the now-sidelined rebel government.
In recent weeks, angry mobs have set fire to mosques and have brutally 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 neighborhoods are being destroyed and emptied," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, who has gotten 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," he added.
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."
They did have protection as they departed. Chadian special forces went along as well as Seleka rebels in cars in the convoy, armed with pistols and AK-47s.
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 resided in Central African Republic's capital had lived there for generations.
An alliance of Muslim rebel groups from the north united to overthrow the president of 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 ousted President Francois Bozize, 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 untold 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.
The aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said Friday that tens of thousands of Muslims already have fled to Chad and Cameroon, while entire communities remain trapped in parts of northwest Central African Republic. A Muslim community of more than 8,000 people in Bouar "remains effectively imprisoned, unable to flee the violence."
"We are concerned about the fate of these communities trapped in their villages, surrounded by anti-Balaka groups, and also about the fact that many Muslim families are being forced into exile to survive," said Martine Flokstra, MSF emergency coordinator.
The United States, France and the United Nations all have condemned Wednesday's grisly slaying by armed soldiers, which took place just moments after the interim president left the scene. No one was detained in connection with the slaying, which took place in the presence of African regional peacekeepers.
"It is very unfortunate that that happened, that we were not able to quickly intervene and then save him, but things happened so quickly that we couldn't," said Eloi Yao, spokesman for the African mission known as MISCA.
Babacar Gaye, the U.N. special representative to Central African Republic, called for an investigation and said those responsible "should be made an example of."
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press journalists Andrew Drake and Hippolyte Marboua in Bangui, Central African Republic contributed to this report.
Follow Jerome Delay on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeromedelay and Krista Larson at https://twitter.com/klarsonafrica.