Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) – Hundreds more Chadian civilians headed Saturday to their home country after facing repeated attacks and threats from majority Christians in the strife-torn Central African Republic.
Under the taunts of angry residents looking on, Chadians, who are traditionally Muslim, piled into a convoy of several dozen cars, trucks and taxis that left the capital Bangui, heading north for the long journey to neighbouring Chad.
“They came to destroy the Christian regime. We are going to destroy the Islamic regime! We will kill them all,” one resident shouted as a truck filled with Chadian families left the capital.
French peacekeepers kept the protesters at a distance from the convoy as the Chadians earlier jostled to cram their personal belongings into the cars.
In the same neighbourhood, hundreds looted the home and garage of a former Seleka rebel, the mostly Muslim group that seized power after overthrowing the old regime in March.
“The Selekas stole everything. Now we’re taking it back,” shouted one of the looters.
A first convoy of Chadian civilians that left Friday, also under the jeers of angry protesters, turned bloody when Chadian soldiers protecting it threw grenades into the crowd. At least one civilian was killed and several children were wounded, military and humanitarian officials said.
The land convoys are in addition to flights set up by the Chadian government that the International Organisation for Migration says has evacuated some 3,000 people in the past week.
On Saturday one of the Chadians, Abdoulaye Saken, who was fleeing along with his wife and four children, told AFP: “I wanted to take my family to the airport (where French and African peacekeepers are based) to get them to safety, but we were blocked by civilians. Fortunately the French army is protecting us now.”
And on the edge of despair he added: “I have always lived here, my children were born here… We don’t understand this.”
The African Union meanwhile expressed support for the Chadian forces in the Central African Republic.
“We at the African Union do not believe everything that is being said about the Chadian contingent,” AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Ismael Chergui told a news conference in the CAR capital.
“We are backing the Chadian armed forces, we welcome their actions and we encourage them in their mission within MISCA,” the African force deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Chad’s Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat rejected the media reports as “manipulation”.
“Chad has been in the CAR for 20 years. Chad has no plans for the CAR,” he said adding that Central Africans “should not let themselves be manipulated by politicians who have failed”.
Sudan said it would follow Chad’s example and evacuate about 275 of its nationals by plane on Sunday.
Unprecedented mass exodus
The mass exodus is unprecedented in the former French colony, which has a long history of unrest. It follows weeks of violence pitting majority Christians against Muslims, who make up about one-fifth of the population.
Only 30,000 Chadians are officially registered with the Central African authorities, but they are thought to number in the hundreds of thousands, many of them going back generations.
French and African troops — including a Chadian contingent — are struggling to contain the unrest that has wracked the impoverished country since the March coup by Seleka rebels who installed Michel Djotodia as interim president — the Central African republic’s first Muslim leader.
The aftermath of the coup saw many former rebels — including some from Chad — carry out abuses against the Christian majority, who in turn set up vigilante squads seeking revenge.
More than 1,000 people are believed to have been killed in three weeks of sectarian violence in Bangui alone.
Soldiers from mainly Muslim Chad, which lies to the north of the Central African Republic, have been accused of siding with the Seleka force, and the African Union has said the Chadians will redeploy outside the capital to avoid tensions.
The United Nations said Friday it would speed up planning for a possible UN peacekeeping force to the country following a plea from French President Francois Hollande for the world body to “play a still bigger role” in the troubled country.
The European Union said it would send 20,000 tarpaulins to the stricken country to help those find shelter who have been displaced by the violence.
The accusations against the Chadians have been fanned by several incidents, including one on Monday when Burundian troops in the African Union force said Chadian soldiers opened fire on them as they were disarming former rebels.
The same day, Chadian peacekeepers fired on a stone-throwing crowd of mostly Christian protesters, killing one man and wounding around 40 more.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will begin a three-day visit to the region on Monday to discuss the crisis in the Central African Republic, a French colony until 1960.
The trip will take him to Chad as well as to Niger and Mali, another former French colony where a French-led military intervention forced out Al-Qaeda-linked groups who seized control of the country’s north following a coup, also in March.