The United Nations said on Tuesday it was trying to evacuate 19,000 Muslims urgently from Bangui and other parts of Central African Republic who are surrounded by anti-balaka Christian militia threatening their lives.
Anti-balaka forces control major routes to and from Bangui as well as many towns and villages in the southwest, the UN refugee agency said. The militia has become more militarized as it steps up attacks on Muslims and African Union peacekeepers.
"What we don't want is to stand by and watch people being slaughtered," UNHCR spokeswoman Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba told a news briefing about a conflict that UN officials have warned could spiral into genocide.
"This is what could happen because the only thing keeping them from being killed right now is the presence of the French troops and the MISCA," she said, referring to African Union peacekeeping forces, known as MISCA.
Mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power a year ago, perpetrating abuses on the majority Christian population that triggered waves of revenge attacks, leading to thousands of deaths and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
Seleka rebels gave way in January to an interim civilian government. But the government — backed by 2,000 French and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers — has been unable to halt attacks by anti-balaka militias on Muslims, thousands of whom have fled to neighbouring countries or sought shelter in camps.
The anti-balaka pose a particular threat to Muslims in the PK12 neighbourhood of Bangui; the towns of Boda, Carnot and Berberati to the west of the capital and Bossangoa to the north, Lejeune-Kaba said.
"We fear for the lives of 19,000 Muslims in those locations. UNHCR stands ready to assist with their evacuation to safer areas both within and outside of the country," she said.
Deterioration and security
At least 60 people have been killed in Bangui since March 22, mainly in a series of clashes between anti-balaka and Muslims, UN human rights spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly said.
"In the light of this further deterioration of the security situation, we once again urge states to support the secretary-general's urgent appeal for thousands more peacekeepers and police," Pouilly told the briefing.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned on Monday against any support or facilitation of violence by armed groups in Central African Republic after Chadian troops were accused of opening fire on civilians and killing at least 10 people at the weekend.
The Security Council began talks on Monday on a resolution to create a UN peacekeeping force, which could assume authority from the African Union on September 15.
Muslims in Boda have told the UNHCR that they will leave on their own if it cannot evacuate them, Lejeune-Kaba said.
The agency is looking into relocating Muslims to Kabo and Moyen Sido in the north near the border with Chad, where the presence of the anti-balaka was far weaker, she said.
Asked whether this would not lead to partitioning CAR into a Muslim north and Christian south, Lejeune-Kaba said the relocation was to avoid an imminent threat to their lives and did not affect the whole of the country's Muslim population.
"Relocating people now out of danger does not preclude their return. On the contrary, what we want is to see people be able to return at some point," she said. "But the tensions are such right now that it is just not possible. It's almost hopeless, to be honest."
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alison Williams)