Muslims march in Central African Republic capital, call for evacuation

BANGUI Sat May 31, 2014 11:46am EDT

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BANGUI (Reuters) - Hundreds of Muslims marched in their last major enclave in Central African Republic's capital Bangui on Saturday, protesting against a call by the president that they disarm and demanding their safe evacuation from the city.

A tense calm has returned to Bangui following two days of violence ignited by an attack by Muslim gunmen on a church on Wednesday.

In a televised address on Friday, Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza promised that those responsible for the church attack would be punished and that Bangui, including the Muslim-dominated PK5 neighbourhood, would be disarmed.

"We are defending ourselves because we have no one," Ousmane Abakar, one of the march organisers told Reuters. "If they are going to disarm PK5, they have to disarm the entire city at the same time, because every neighbourhood in Bangui is armed."

Central African Republic has been gripped by ethnic and religious violence since northern Seleka rebels, who are mostly Muslim, seized power in the mainly Christian nation in 2013. Seleka left power in January under international pressure and since then anti-balaka Christian militias have preyed on Muslims.

Those attacks have largely driven Muslims from Bangui and the west, effectively partitioning the country, whose east is controlled mainly by Seleka.

Several thousand Muslims, however, remain in PK5.

"We are the victims of the anti-balaka," said Abakar. "We call on the international community to come take us to where there is peace."

The church attack - the worst on the Christian population since Seleka left power - stoked frustration at Samba-Panza's failure to return peace to country, despite the presence of 2,000 French troops and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers.

At least 17 people were killed in the attack, according to U.N. officials, and another 27 were abducted. In response, angry Christians paralysed the city, setting up barricades, burning tyres and attacking a mosque.

Burundian peacekeepers shot dead two people on Friday after they said they came under fire during the violent citywide protests.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said on Saturday that it had treated 27 people wounded in the violence since late Wednesday.

While French forces dismantled most of the barricades overnight, protesters began rebuilding them in some parts of the city early on Saturday.

"The country is in a catastrophe," said Dieu Beni Ngoiyoma, a Christian teacher in Bangui. "The president spoke to us about reconciliation between Muslims and Christians, but now it's the Muslims who are coming to kill the Central Africans."

(Additional reporting by Crispin Dembassa-Kette in Bangui and Joe Bavier in Abidjan; Writing by Joe Bavier; editing by Stephen Addison)

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