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Gunmen attack Muslims fleeing Central African Republic, kill 22, 3 kids

FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 27, 2013 file photo, French soldiers protect a truck of fleeing Muslims after it broke down and was surrounded by hundreds of hostile Christian residents, including several anti-balaka militiamen, in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic. Central African Republic has long teetered on the brink of anarchy, but the new unrest unleashed by a March 2013 coup has ignited previously unseen sectarian hatred between Christians and Muslims. More than 1,000 people were killed in December alone and nearly 1 million displaced. The crisis has forced some to flee across borders to desperately poor and unstable countries like Chad and Congo. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 27, 2013 file photo, French soldiers protect a truck of fleeing Muslims after it broke down and was surrounded by hundreds of hostile Christian residents, including several anti-balaka militiamen, in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic. Central African Republic has long teetered on the brink of anarchy, but the new unrest unleashed by a March 2013 coup has ignited previously unseen sectarian hatred between Christians and Muslims. More than 1,000 people were killed in December alone and nearly 1 million displaced. The crisis has forced some to flee across borders to desperately poor and unstable countries like Chad and Congo. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

BANGUI, Central African Republic — Attackers armed with machetes and clubs ambushed a convoy of Muslims fleeing sectarian violence in Central African Republic, killing 22 people, an aid group said Sunday as the country in a state of bloody anarchy awaits a new interim president.

More than 1,000 people have been killed since violence exploded a month ago, and nearly 1 million people have fled their homes. The rebel leader-turned-president stepped down about a week ago amid mounting criticism of his inability to stem bloodshed some warn could explode into genocide.

Today, members of the National Transitional Council are to select a new interim president tasked with leading the country toward democratic elections before the end of 2014. The field, though, was visibly narrowed by the requirement that candidates could not have taken part in a rebellion or armed group over the last 20 years.

Even as the country moved toward restoring a central government, reports of brutal violence outside the capital continued. Tens of thousands of African migrant workers and their families, mostly Muslims, have tried to flee Central African Republic amid the sectarian clashes. On Sunday, Save the Children said 22 people had been killed, including three children, while trying to escape.

Spokesman Mike McCusker said doctors described gory scenes and harrowing accounts after gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade to halt a convoy of Muslim refugees and then attacked them with firearms, machetes and clubs.

“Our doctor said there was blood everywhere, just pouring out of people like tap water,” McCusker told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Friday’s attack took place in the remote northwest of the country outside the town of Bouar. Nearly the entire population of Bouar, about 40,000 people, is taking refuge in mosques and churches, he said.

“An incident of this magnitude has only come to the forefront because of our internal contacts at the hospital,” McCusker said. “Maybe a lot of these stories are not being reported.”

The brutal attack near Bouar underscores how African and French peacekeepers are not reaching remote areas where violence goes unreported, said the British charity’s country director Robert Lankenau.

Former colonizer France sent 1,600 troops last month in an effort to help secure the country until an African-led mission was at full strength. The African peacekeeping mission has about 4,400 troops, though about 3,200 of those are in the capital, Bangui.

Rebel leader Michel Djotodia united thousands of armed fighters last March in a bid to overthrow longtime President Francois Bozize. Djotodia’s inability to control the rebels in the aftermath ultimately led to his demise, as the fighters began pillaging homes and killing civilians. Over time, resentment grew in the predominantly Christian country toward the rebels, most minority Muslims from the distant north.

The conflict took on a sectarian overtone in a country where Muslims and Christians have lived together for generations, and a Christian militia opposed to Djotodia’s government launched an attempted coup in early December. In the days that followed, angry Christian youths set mosques on fire and mobs stoned to death people suspected of supporting Djotodia.

The international community has hopes that his departure will clear the road to peace, though tensions over who will replace him could spark further unrest.

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