BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Clashes between Muslim and Christian residents have left at least 75 people dead in a single town, a local priest said Monday, while heavy fighting broke out between rebels and peacekeepers in the capital.
In Bangui, Muslim militias engaged Burundian troops who returned fire in some of the heaviest fighting since France sent peacekeepers to its former colony in early December.
Some 1,600 French and 5,000 African peacekeepers are struggling to keep a lid on the violence. An untold number of people have been slain across the country since March 2013 when heavily armed rebels overthrew the president of a decade, setting off sectarian violence.
Father Cassien Kamatari told The Associated Press on Monday that fighting had erupted five days ago in the town of Boda, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) outside Bangui. Muslim victims were buried soon after the attacks so it was not known how many of them also were killed in addition to the toll given by the priest.
"Instead of thinking only of Bangui, people must also think of what's happening in the countryside, because what we are living through in these communities is horrific," he said.
Several months after the president was overthrown, the armed, Muslim fighters also were being blamed for carrying out massacres on predominantly Christian villages in the country's remote northwest.
An armed Christian movement known as the anti-Balaka arose in opposition to the Muslim rebels and its fighters are also accused of carrying out scores of human rights abuses. The anti-Balaka, backed by forces loyal to the ousted president, launched an attempted coup in December, unleashing bloodshed that left more than 1,000 dead in a matter of days in Bangui.
Retaliatory violence against Muslim civilians has forced tens of thousands to flee for their lives. Angry mobs in the capital have torched mosques and used machetes to hack Muslims to death in the streets, then mutilated their bodies in a final act of rage.
On Monday, there was renewed concern for hundreds of Muslims in the northwest community of Yaloke, said Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International's senior crisis adviser in Bangui. Local Christian militiamen on Sunday issued an ultimatum that all Muslims were to leave the town within 24 hours, she said.
"Some 2,000 people tried to squeeze on to about 10 trucks," she said, noting that one overturned because it was so heavy. "Everyone was running for their lives — it was a panic zone."
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press journalists Jerome Delay and Andrew Drake in Bangui, Central African Republic contributed to this report.
Follow Krista Larson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/klarsonafrica and Jerome Delay at https://twitter.com/jeromedelay.