BANGUI Peacekeeping troops escorted around 1,300 Muslims out of Bangui on Sunday, triggering looting and removing one of the last pockets of Muslims from the capital of a nation torn apart by religious violence.
Foreign troops have escorted thousands of Muslims to relative safety in the north of the Central African Republic. But some leaders fear that will make permanent divisions that have led to talk of partition after 18 months of conflict.
Peacekeepers stood by as Christians, some armed with machetes and bows and arrows, swarmed into and picked apart houses in Bangui's northern PK12 neighborhood, which had been a Muslim stronghold in the majority Christian south.
"We are leaving to save our lives," Mohamed Ali Mohamed, who was born and brought up in the area, told Reuters as fellow Muslims tied jerry cans to trucks ahead of the trip.
Some of the departing Muslims torched their cars as they could not take them in the convoy but did not want Christians to be able to use them once they had left.
Mainly Muslim rebels, known as Seleka, seized Bangui last year after complaining they had been marginalized by President Francois Bozize's government. Their time in power was marked by abuses and killings that led to the creation of Christian self-defense militia.
Seleka leader Michel Djotodia stepped down in January under international pressure as violence spiraled out of control. Interim authorities, backed by French and African peacekeepers, are still struggling to restore order and rights groups say parts of the country have experienced "religious cleansing".
"It is a shame but there is nothing we can do," said Dieudonne Bignilaba, a Christian resident.
"For many years we lived together but they were the ones who brought the weapons here to kill us."
After watching their former neighbors leave, from behind a thin white rope barrier put up by Congolese peacekeepers, hundreds of Christians, including women and children, took part in the looting. Many chanted "Liberation, Liberation!"
Central African Republic's minister for reconciliation last week criticized the evacuations, warning they would play into the hands of Muslim rebels who want to create an independent state in the north.
Auguste Boukanga, president of the URD party which remained neutral in the conflict, echoed these concerns, calling on the 2,000 French and over 5,000 African peacekeepers to instead stick to their mandate of disarming the gunmen spreading terror.
Giuseppe Loprete, head of the local office of the International Organization for Migration, the U.N. agency involved in the evacuation, said Muslims living near the central mosque and in PK5, another Bangui neighborhood, did not want to leave.
"We are working on social cohesion ... I'm not sure that they want to leave. Actually they told us they prefer to stay in Bangui," he said.
(Writing by David Lewis; editing by Andrew Roche)