BANGUI (Reuters) - Rebels in Central African Republic have razed villages, torched homes and murdered civilians in violence across neglected rural areas that began before they seized power in March and continues today, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday.
Thousands of fighters from the Seleka rebel coalition led by Michel Djotodia, who is now the country's interim leader, marched into the riverside capital Bangui on March 24, forcing President Francois Bozize to flee.
Reports of continuing human rights violations by Seleka fighters, including reprisal killings and rampant looting, had, until now, focused on the capital.
However, the HRW investigation found that some of the worst abuses were occurring in the isolated countryside.
"Seleka fighters are killing civilians and burning villages to the ground while some villagers are dying in the bush for lack of assistance," Daniel Bekele, HRW's Africa director, said in a written outline of the abuses.
"The world doesn't seem to notice that the Central African Republic is facing a catastrophic situation," he added.
Communications Minister Christophe Gazam Betty told Reuters he had not yet seen the HRW statement and therefore could not respond to the abuse allegations.
HRW said Noureddine Adam, a Seleka general who is the public security minister in the transitional government, denied Seleka fighters were responsible for the abuses, blaming them instead on other armed groups.
Speaking to more than 100 witnesses, HRW documented the destruction of 34 villages and more than 1,000 houses since February in attacks primarily carried out by Seleka fighters, but sometimes with the help of armed Mbarara nomadic herders.
At least 40 civilians have been killed, and Seleka forces targeted some communities to quell resistance and to pillage, witnesses said.
"When they entered the village, they started chasing us (and) shot at people inside their homes or running outside toward the bush. Most of the villagers were shot in the back while running," one witness in the village of Gbade said.
Seleka fighters arrived in Ouin village on May 1. Having told residents they were calling a meeting to convince displaced villagers to return to their homes, they then tied five men together and shot them.
"One of (the victims) was not killed on the spot so they cut his throat with a long knife," a witness said.
In addition to those killed, villagers said dozens of civilians - mainly the elderly, infants, and the ill - had died in the bush after fleeing the violence.
More than 200,000 Central Africans have fled their homes in the last six months and some 60,000 are suffering from severe food shortages, humanitarian groups said on Friday.
Foreign peacekeepers are concentrated primarily in the capital, and poor security has limited the movements of aid agencies outside of Bangui. Health facilities across the country have been shuttered due to the unrest.
"Before the coup, the humanitarian situation in CAR was already dire. Now it's even worse. Nations must donate now to help the country get back on its feet," said Jean-Philippe Marcoux, country director for aid group Mercy Corps.
Seleka, a grouping of five rebel movements, launched its insurgency in early December, accusing former president Bozize of reneging on a 2007 peace deal.
Reporting by Ange Aboa; Writing by Joe Bavier; editing by Mike Collett-White