BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Central African Republic's capital is experiencing "unprecedented levels of violence" with at least 30 people killed in the last three days, Red Cross officials warned Friday as heavily armed rebels regrouped in a town not far from the capital.
In one incident this week, marauding gangs with machetes hacked to death a man as French peacekeepers awaited instructions from their base. By the time they fired warning shots 10 minutes later, the man already had been slain by the crowd.
The attacks have largely targeted Muslim civilians accused of having supported the Seleka rebels who overthrew the government in March 2013, ushering in months of violence against the Christian majority. An armed Christian movement known as the anti-Balaka arose in opposition to Seleka, and included supporters of ousted president Francois Bozize.
Now that the Seleka leader who installed himself as president has stepped down and many rebels have left the capital, Muslim civilians have become increasingly vulnerable to horrific attacks in which crowds have killed them and then mutilated their bodies.
"The level of violence is unprecedented in the last few weeks," said Nadia Dibsy, a spokeswoman for the ICRC in Bangui. "We're calling on regional forces to put an end to the violence and ensure the protection of the population."
Antoine Mbao-Bogo, president of the local Red Cross, said at least 30 bodies had been collected over the last three days. That toll did not include victims who had been buried by relatives.
Nearly 5,000 African peacekeepers and 1,600 French troops are working to secure the country, which is the size of Texas. Most of those peacekeepers, though, remain in the capital, Bangui, even as violence soars in the remote northwest. Human rights groups have urged the troops to head out into the communities where militias are regrouping and staging new attacks.
Heavy gunfire erupted again Friday in Bangui, where residents reporting fighting between the Muslim rebel fighters and the Christian militiamen in several neighborhoods.
Eric Sabe, who lives in the capital's third district, said his neighbor was killed by a stray bullet.
"We're terrified. We don't understand why neither the African peacekeepers nor the French have intervened to separate the fighters," he said. "We don't know what will happen tonight because the Muslims have sufficiently rearmed themselves. We're afraid they'll return to pillage and set fire to our homes like they did a week ago."
There also were new concerns Friday about the intentions of hundreds of Seleka rebels who had left the capital earlier this week under the escort of regional peacekeepers. It now appears that they have merely reassembled at a base in the town of Sibut, located only about 110 miles (180 kilometers) from the capital.
Seleka Gen. Mahamat Bahr declined to specify how many fighters he had with him in Sibut, but confirmed to The Associated Press on Friday that there were "numerous" men and vehicles and that the town had been under their control as of Thursday.
While some fear that ex-Seleka fighters could launch another coup from Sibut, Bahr said they wanted to work with the new transitional government that replaced their leader as head of state.
"We are here awaiting a solution for us," he said. "If the transitional government calls us, we can discuss our role."
The presence of some 50 vehicles and heavily armed fighters, though, already has alarmed local residents. Marcellin Yoyo, who represents the region in the national transitional council, called on the international community to quickly intervene.
Local authorities said that the men who have arrived in Sibut do not speak either French or Sango, the national languages of Central African Republic. Many of the armed fighters backing the Seleka rebellion are mercenaries who speak Arabic, and hail from neighboring Chad and Sudan.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.
Follow Krista Larson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/klarsonafrica.