At least 14 people have been killed in tit-for-tat sectarian violence in Central African Republic, a Red Cross official said on Friday, and hundreds of Christians have sought shelter in the main church in the central town of Bambari.
Muslim youths had rampaged through Christian districts after a Muslim taxi driver was killed in revenge for a Seleka rebel shooting a soldier in Bambari two days before, Mandaba Delphin, head of the Red Cross in Bambari, told Reuters by telephone.
The soldier was part of a detachment escorting the head of the transitional parliament, President Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, on a visit to Bambari.
“Young Muslims went into Christian neighbourhoods with guns and knives and burnt down houses,” he said. “We’ve already found 12 dead and 13 wounded. They are all Christian civilians.”
Muslim Seleka rebels seized the southern capital Bangui in March 2013 but withdrew northward in January amid fierce clashes with Christian militias. Bambari is close to the border between Seleka’s northern enclave and the Christian-controlled south, and has become a flashpoint for sectarian tensions.
The U.N. has said in the last few weeks that security in Bambari was improving and, on Thursday, France said it would begin withdrawing the 2,000 troops deployed to stem massacres in the capital Bangui where Christian “anti-balaka” militia were fighting to end months of killings, rape and looting by Seleka.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said on Friday France would gradually reduce its forces to the 400-500 troops it had stationed there before the crisis in Bangui in 2013.
“We are currently 2,000 and by the Spring we will be 1,500,” he told BFM TV. “We will reduce our function as MINUSCA (United Nations Mission for the Stabilisation of the Central African Republic) increases its strength.”
MINUSCA had said in a statement on Thursday that at least four people were killed in the violence.
“These crimes are serious violations of human rights and will not go unpunished,” MINUSCA said. It had dispatched a fact-finding mission to the town, it said.
A French military source said MINUSCA is expected to reach its full strength of 10,000 troops by the end of April, from about 7,500.
With the west of the country calmer, France was redeploying more troops to Bangui and the volatile central region, and sending special forces into the Seleka-controlled north east to prepare for an eventual U.N. deployment there.
Seleka still has some 6,000 fighters – just one-third of the level of when it held power – but it was divided by factional splits among its leaders, according to the French source.
More than 852,000 people, or nearly one-fifth of the population, remain displaced by violence, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).