BANGUI, Central African Republic — Thousands of Muslims climbed aboard trucks protected by heavily armed Chadian soldiers in a mass exodus Friday from the capital of Central African Republic. Their flight follows months of escalating attacks on anyone perceived as supporting a now-defunct Muslim rebel government blamed for scores of atrocities during its rule of this predominantly Christian country.
In The Hague, Netherlands, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced a preliminary investigation into potential war crimes or crimes against humanity in Central African Republic, saying the crisis has "gone from bad to worse" since September.
Along the streets of Bangui, crowds of Christians gathered to cheer the convoy's departure for the neighboring country of Chad, which is mostly Muslim. It was an acrid farewell to their Muslim neighbors who had in some cases lived alongside Christians for generations here and have few ties to Chad.
The dangers for those who stayed behind were clear: One man who tumbled from the precariously overloaded trucks was brutally slain, witnesses said.
"He didn't even have the time to fall — he landed into the hands of the angry mob who then lynched him at the scene," said Armando Yanguendji, a resident of the Gobongo district who witnessed the horror.
Another truck in the same neighborhood escaped attack from Christian militiamen only when Burundian peacekeepers fired into the air to disperse the crowd trying to assault the convoy, he said. Some trucks broke down even before they could leave Bangui on Friday and had to be abandoned. The passengers jumped aboard other trucks, facing constant jeering, threats and stone-throwing from the spectators.
"The Christians say the Muslims must go back where they came from — that's why we are going home," said Osmani Benui as she fled Bangui. "We couldn't stay here because we had no protection."
They did have protection as they departed. Chadian special forces went along as well as Seleka rebels in cars, armed with pistols and AK-47s. The convoy of some 500 cars, trucks and motorcycles strained under the weight of people's belongings.
The aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said Friday that tens of thousands of Muslims have now fled to Chad and Cameroon. The U.N. refugee agency said that almost 9,000 people have fled to Cameroon in the last 10 days, bringing the number of refugees in Cameroon to 22,000 since current began.
"It really is a horrific situation. All over Bangui, entire Muslim neighborhoods are being destroyed and emptied," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, who has gotten trapped Muslims to safety under the guard of peacekeepers.
"Their buildings are being destroyed and being taken apart, brick by brick, roof by roof, to wipe out any sign of their once existence in this country," he added.
Hundreds sought refuge at a mosque in Bangui's predominantly Muslim PK5 neighborhood.
But the dangers are not limited to the capital. Entire communities remain trapped in parts of northwest Central African Republic, according to the Medecins Sans Frontieres statement. A Muslim community of more than 8,000 people in Bouar "remains effectively imprisoned, unable to flee the violence."
"We are concerned about the fate of these communities trapped in their villages, surrounded by anti-Balaka groups, and also about the fact that many Muslim families are being forced into exile to survive," said Martine Flokstra, MSF emergency coordinator.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said that nearly 840,000 people remain displaced inside the country, and "with no immediate prospect to return home as the rainy season begins, the refugee agency fears a worsening crisis."
The U.N. refugee agency warned of a high risk of cholera and other public health problems, particularly in Bangui, where more than 413,000 people still live in makeshift sites.
In announcing the International Criminal Court's preliminary investigation, prosecutor Fatou Bensouda cited reports of "hundreds of killings, acts of rape and sexual slavery, destruction of property, pillaging, torture, forced displacement and recruitment and use of children in hostilities." She added that "in many incidents, victims appear to have been deliberately targeted on religious grounds."
The ICC is the world's permanent war crimes tribunal, established in 2002 to investigate and punish atrocities when member states are unwilling or unable to do so themselves. Central African Republic is a member.
Although most of Central African Republic's roughly 4.6 million citizens are Christian, there is a sizeable Muslim population in its north near the borders with Sudan and Chad.