The human rights group Amnesty International said Wednesday that the exodus of tens of thousands of Muslims from the Central African Republic (CAR) amounted to "ethnic cleansing," a day after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the country faces a "distinct risk" of splitting into Muslim and Christian regions due to ongoing sectarian violence.
The landlocked former French colony, which has a Christian majority, descended into chaos after Seleka rebels, who are mostly Muslim, ousted President Francois Bozize in March 2013.
Fighting and looting quickly erupted between Muslim and Christian groups, but didn’t intensify against Muslims until after the Seleka-propped government crumbled in January. Rights groups at the time warned that Muslim civilians, who make up 15 percent of the population, would be especially vulnerable to retaliatory attacks, as many Christians blamed them for supporting the Seleka rebels.
Since then, Christian militiamen, known as anti-balaka, and mobs of Christian civilians have carried out public executions of Muslims on a nearly daily basis. In some cases, the bodies of Muslim victims were mutilated and dragged through the streets or set on fire.
Amnesty International on Wednesday described the ongoing violence inflicted by the anti-balaka Christian militias on Muslim civilians as a "tragedy of historic proportions" that could set a dangerous precedent for other countries in the region.
"Anti-balaka militias are carrying out violent attacks in an effort to ethnically cleanse Muslims in the Central African Republic," said Joanne Mariner, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International.
Amnesty said it had documented at least 200 killings of Muslim civilians by Christian militia groups.
Donatella Rovera of Amnesty told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that "the Muslim population is being targeted (and) forced to leave the country," adding that the human rights organization considers the situation to be ethnic cleansing because the "stated objective is to get the Muslim population out of the country."
Since December, more than 1,000 Central Africans have been killed in sectarian violence, and nearly 1 million in the country of 4.6 million have fled their homes.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban on Tuesday warned that the country could split and urged the international community to intervene.
"Both Muslims and Christians have been murdered and forced to flee their homes," he said. "The sectarian brutality is changing the country’s demography. The de facto partition of the CAR is a distinct risk."
Ban went on to say that the international response to the crisis "does not yet match the gravity of the situation.
"We must do more to prevent more atrocities, protect civilians, restore law and order, provide humanitarian assistance and hold the country together," he said. "The international response must be robust — with a credible deployment of force."
France sent 1,600 troops to the CAR in December to assist some 5,000 African Union peacekeepers, while the European Union has also agreed to send around 500 troops.
Ban said the CAR's interim President Catherine Samba-Panza had formally requested a U.N. operation, but warned that even if a deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force appeared "increasingly necessary," it would take time.
"I call on the European Union to accelerate the deployment of its military operation," he said. "I spoke yesterday with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and asked France to consider deploying additional troops. I'm urging other willing member states to contribute as well."
Meanwhile, the U.N.'s World Food Program is set to airlift emergency food and supplies, saying it would fly a month's supply of food — enough for 150,000 people — from Douala in Cameroon to the CAR’s capital, Bangui.
"This is a rather exceptional operation, our biggest emergency air operation in a long time, bigger than for Syria and the Philippines," the food program's spokesman Alexis Masciarelli told AFP.
But he added that the operation "would not definitively solve the problem."
According to the United Nations, 1.3 million people, about a quarter of the population of the CAR, need immediate food aid.
Al Jazeera and wire services