International peacekeepers were accused last night of failing to prevent ethnic cleansing in the Central African Republic, as the discovery of a mass grave laid bare what a visiting United Nations official described as “unspeakable” horror.
A human rights group said that Christian militias were being allowed to slaughter Muslims within impunity because French and African Union peacekeepers were too thinly spread to stop them.
Amnesty International said that it would lead to further tit-for-tat violence, a warning given credence yesterday when peacekeepers found at least a dozen rotting corpses at a barracks occupied by members of the Muslim Seleka militia in the capital, Bangui.
Meanwhile, Antonio Guterres, the head of the UN’s refugee agency said Wednesday he had witnessed “a humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions” during his tour of the country.
“Massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing,” said Mr Guterres.
“Shocking barbarity, brutality and inhumanity have characterised this violence.”
The Amnesty International report said that despite the presence of some 1,600 French peacekeeping troops and some 6,000 African Union soldiers, Christian militias, known as “anti-balakas” were still carrying out attacks on ethnic Muslims.
“International forces have failed to swiftly deploy to these areas to protect civilians and have allowed anti-balaka militias to assert themselves,” Amnesty said. “As a result, further violence now threatens to spread across the Central African Republic.”
Only last week, a group of CAR soldiers in Bangui publicly lynched a man suspected of having been a rebel, as a jeering crowd took photographs which were later beamed around the world. Burundian peacekeepers were at the scene but withdrew for their own safety.
Among the massacres documented by an Amnesty research team in the CAR is Bossemptele, where on January 18 more than 100 people were killed during Muslim-Christian clashes. No peacekeepers were based in the town at the time, leaving civilians at the mercy of armed groups.
“For two weeks we have been calling for the (African) and French forces to come . . . but we have had no response,” one local priest told Amnesty. “The situation, for the displaced people and for us, is getting worse every day.”
Amnesty also reported a case in Bangui in which the bodies of a number of Muslims who had been killed earlier were mutilated and set on fire. “French forces barely 50 metres away did not intervene to stop the mutilation of the bodies,” Amnesty said.
The group warned that the violence was creating an “historic” exodus of Muslims from the CAR. As well as sowing the seeds for further conflict, it carries risks for the CAR’s economy as Muslims make up the bulk of the country’s trading and business class, Amnesty said.
Yesterday Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, appealed to France to send more troops, saying he feared the country could spiral into genocide.