The UN has warned that bloodshed in the Central African Republic could turn into genocide as horrors continue to unfold in the country where parliament is preparing to choose a new leader, AFP reports.
Violence in the highly unstable country has not let up despite the resignation last week of strongman Michel Djotodia under intense regional pressure, and at least seven more people were killed in the capital overnight.
The violence "has all the elements that we have seen elsewhere in places like Rwanda, Bosnia. The elements are there for a genocide, there is no question about that," UN humanitarian operations director John Ging told reporters in Geneva Thursday after a five-day visit to the country.
"Atrocities are being committed on an ongoing basis, (and) fear is consuming the minds of an entire population, wherever you might go," Ging said.
International forces are trying to restore order after the country plunged into sectarian warfare following a March coup in which the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel group overthrew president Francois Bozize.
The US military on Thursday started transporting the first elements of a Rwandan battalion to the Central African Republic, where they will join an African Union mission, the Pentagon said.
The Rwandans will be deployed with the African Union mission, which already includes troops from Burundi, Cameroon, Congo Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Chad and Equatorial Guinea. The AU contingent is working alongside some 1,600 French troops.
Tension ran high in northern Bangui, where French troops patrolled in a bid to quell the unrest that spiralled between Muslim former rebels and the Christian majority in the wake of the coup that plunged the poor, landlocked country into chaos.
Some residents of the district accused French soldiers of shooting people during a search. "They fired at the three men," said a youth, pointing to spent shells.
The French army acknowledged that there had been a clash but denied any link with the three deaths.
'We're being massacred here'
Panicked Muslim residents were fleeing, headed northwards for neighbouring Chad, a country unfamiliar to many of them. AFP journalists saw dozens of people packed into lorries accompanied by Chadian troops from the regional African force named MISCA.
Women in tears and terrified children scrambled to get aboard moving vehicles, some of them wounded by Christian "anti-balaka" militias formed in response to atrocities by armed Muslims.
"We're being massacred here. I've suffered too much. I'm going," said Sadou Gambo, a widow with six children and no relatives in Chad.
Members of the transitional national council (CNT), serving as a provisional parliament, on Thursday agreed on 17 criteria for a potential interim leader, and said the election would take place on Monday at 1000 GMT.
The successful candidate will be "competent, a person of integrity, rigorous and capable of pushing forward national reconciliation," the CNT specified.
However, the person may not be a member of the CNT itself, nor have served in Djotodia's administration nor have been part of a militia or armed rebellion for the past 20 years.
"The council has an historic opportunity to put the country on a path toward stability, democracy, and development, and we encourage the council to seize this opportunity by selecting leaders of integrity who can restore stability to the Central African Republic," US deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Wednesday.
But the UN's Ging warned of the scale of the task. "Politically the country has collapsed, public services have also collapsed, whether it's health care, education, social services and so on," he said.
He said that the bloodshed did not yet amount to an interreligious conflict between communities that had long lived in peace side by side, "but it has the potential."
"This conflict (was initiated) by extremely violent people who have an agenda to try to convert this into an interreligious conflict. The communities are resisting that but they are in fear," he added.
About a fifth of the population of 4.6 million has been displaced or fled abroad to escape murder, rape and pillage, according to UN agencies.
Some 100,000 people from Bangui survive in an overcrowded tent city by the airport, where the French troops are based alongside the MISCA soldiers.
One task of these forces is to disarm the armed gangs and provide security. On Wednesday, the African Union urged central African countries to strengthen the MISCA force from around 4,500 to 6,000.
Relief agencies have warned of a humanitarian disaster and are making efforts to feed people, help run crowded hospitals and provide vaccination for measles, which can be deadly when hygiene is lacking.