A general view of the town of Bambari
By Emmanuel Braun
BAMBARI, Central African Republic (Reuters) - In this dusty town at the heart of the Central African Republic, many angry Muslims advocate a simple solution to the threat of religious violence from Christian militias terrorizing the country's south: partition.
Bambari lies near the dividing line separating Central African Republic's Christian south - where mobs have lynched hundreds of Muslims and torn down their homes - from a northern region controlled by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels.
Seleka seized power last year, saying they had been excluded by southern tribes from the country's oil, gold and diamond wealth. But their 10 months in power - a murderous orgy of looting and extortion - sparked a sectarian backlash that is driving Muslims from the south despite the presence of French and African Union peacekeepers.
Many people in Bambari say the savagery of the violence, which has displaced nearly a quarter of the country's 4.5 million people, has brought about a turning point. Young Muslims here are circulating by cellphone a design for the flag of what they dub the 'Republic of Northern Central Africa'.
"The partition itself has already been done. Now there only remains the declaration of independence," said Abdel Nasser Mahamat Youssouf, member of a youth group lobbying for the secession of the north, as he pointed to the flag of what he said would be a secular republic.
It is a familiar story in Africa, where borders from the colonial era ignored ethnic boundaries, storing up tensions for independence. The secessionist calls here echo other African conflicts, notably in neighboring South Sudan, an oil producer that split from Sudan to become the world's newest nation three years ago.
Nigeria, Africa's largest economy and oil producer, has also seen its unity strained by an uprising in its oil-rich Delta region, an Islamist insurgency in the northeast and violence in its Middle Belt, where clashes over land are exacerbated by ethnic and religious enmities.
SAFE HAVEN FOR MUSLIMS
Bambari's red-earth streets have become a haven for Muslims fleeing persecution in the south. A convoy of French peacekeepers escorted some 100 Muslims here on Monday from violence in the PK12 neighborhood of the capital Bangui, 300 kilometers (186 miles) southwest.
Two more convoys are due in the coming days, completing what one human rights organization has dubbed the 'religious cleansing' of one of Bangui's main Muslim areas. Reconciliation Minister Antoinette Montaigne decries the evacuation missions as tantamount to accepting partition.
Many in Bambari say there is no alternative. After Seleka seized power in Bangui in March last year, 'Muslim' became synonymous with the northern insurgents, giving a religious hue to the battle for resources.
When Seleka was forced to cede power under international pressure in January, Christian militias called 'anti-Balaka' set about systematically driving Muslims from the south.
"They don't want any Muslims. Rather than calling their country the Central African Republic, they can call it the Central African Catholic Republic," said Oumar Tidiane, from the same secessionist youth group as Youssouf.
Residents say Bambari, a bustling market town of 65,000 people, is a place where Christians and Muslims live in harmony. Though its mud-brick houses attest to its poverty, the town has long been a cosmopolitan crossroads for traders and a starting point for the northward journey to Chad and Cameroon.
"I ask people in Bangui to note the example of Bambari, where Christians and Muslims live side by side. We don't understand what's going on there," said Paulain Kossikako, a market trader who is a Christian.
Central African Republic has suffered five coups and numerous rebellions since independence from France in 1960. That, and spillover from conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Chad, made it a chronically weak state even before this crisis.
But there are many powerful voices ranged against partition, not just the vehemently opposed interim government in Bangui. France has said it will do everything to prevent it, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has warned of its dangers.
Other African governments are also no supporters, conscious of the implications of separatist movements on a continent where many borders were arbitrarily drawn.
And the evidence from elsewhere shows that partition is no guarantee of peace. South Sudan is now threatened by civil war between troops backing President Salva Kiir and soldiers loyal to his sacked deputy, Riek Machar. The fighting has worsened ethnic tensions between the Dinka and Nuer peoples, sparking a massacre in the oil town of Bentiu.
Within Seleka, its leaders are divided on whether to push for independence. Hardliners like General Abakar Sabone - who controls the far north Vakaga region - has said partition is inevitable if Muslims are denied a role in government.
In Bambari, Seleka commander General Ali Darassa said the country had to rise above religious differences. "Here we treat everyone equally, the same. Everybody has their right. We can't accept what the anti-Balaka are doing."
(Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Will Waterman)