African peacekeepers escorted more than 1,000 minority Muslims fleeing attacks by mainly Christian militias in the Central African Republic to neighbouring Chad, police told AFP on Saturday.
The refugees had gathered at a Koranic school and the Catholic Church’s premises in Bossangoa, fearing for their lives if they stayed on in the town, he said.
Large-scale violence between Christians and Muslims had been raging in Bossangoa and nearby Bouca since last September, part of nationwide unrest sparked by a March 2013 coup.
Thousands have been killed and around a quarter of the country’s 4.6 million people displaced, most of them Muslims, who make up around one-fifth of the overall population.
Muslims who lived peacefully alongside Christians for decades have abandoned entire regions since the conflict took on unprecedented ethnic and religious dimensions.
At least 150 people have lost their lives in the fighting in the Bossangoa region alone pitting former rebels of the Seleka movement that held power for 10 months against mainly Christian “anti-balaka” militias.
Seleka leader Michel Djotodia was forced to resign in January after failing to rein in his fighters, many of whom turned rogue and launched vicious attacks against non-Muslims.
Anti-balaka means “anti-machete” in the local Sango language and refers to the weapon of choice wielded by the Seleka — but also taken up by the vigilantes.
Some 8,000 foreign troops — 2,000 from former colonial power France and most of the rest from the African MISCA force — are trying to disarm rival militias after a year of sectarian violence.
The ethno-religious conflict has led to international warnings of a potential genocide, but it is unprecedented in a nation that has endured decades of coups, army mutinies and general strikes.
With concerns mounting, the UN Security Council voted on Thursday to send some 12,000 UN peacekeepers to the country, including up to 10,000 military personnel and 1,800 police. This force is intended to take over from the French and AU missions, but not until September 15.
The European Union has meanwhile pledged to send 800 troops.