BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC (AP) — Dozens of Muslims marched down the streets of Bangui on Tuesday to demand the departure of French troops, who were deployed to Central African Republic this month to try to pacify fighting, and have instead been accused of taking sides in the nation's sectarian conflict.
It marks a dangerous turning point for the more than 1,600 French soldiers sent here, who were initially cheered by the population, who ran out to greet the arriving troops, waving tree branches, and holding up pieces of cardboard emblazoned with welcoming messages. That was before French President Francois Hollande bluntly said that the country's Muslim president needed to go, and before French forces were accused of only disarming Muslim fighters and ignoring the Christian militias who have infiltrated the city, organizing attacks on mosques, and on neighborhoods like Kilometer 5, where a majority of Muslims live.
On Tuesday the crowds making their way down the deserted city streets were holding signs that said: "We say No to France!" and "Hollande = Liar." Other signs had a hand drawn map of this nation located at the heart of Africa, but showed it split into two, with a Muslim homeland penciled in in the country's north.
Central African Republic slipped into chaos following a coup in March, which was led by a Muslim rebel group. They overran the capital and installed a Muslim president, while the nation's Christian leader was forced to flee with his family. The country is 85 percent Christian, and when the Muslim rebels began attacking Christian villages, first to steal their belongings and cattle, a sectarian divide emerged. Pillaging turned to killing, and by the time French forces arrived earlier this month, at least 500 people had been killed in communal violence, including mob lynchings, their bodies so numerous community leaders had to dig enormous holes for their mass graves.
The French have stepped up patrols and are working to debunk perceptions that they are biased in this war. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Vincent Floreani on Tuesday reacted to accusations that the French force, known as Sangaris, had targeted Muslims.
"Since their deployment Dec. 5, the soldiers of the Sangaris operation are operating according to three principles: impartiality, firmness, and controlled use of force," he said. "They are demonstrating this daily, in contributing to the disarming of all armed groups, without distinction, and in intervening between groups to avoid violence and abuses."
A young woman, Edith Benguere, a Christian, ran into the march by accident when she went to the bank to withdraw money. Frightened, she hid and watched, and saw how the demonstrators were acting aggressively against the French forces, positioned along the route.
"Armored personnel carriers had taken positions in different parts of town. But the soldiers would simply backtrack whenever the demonstrators came near them, to avoid conflict," she said. "One of the demonstrators was screaming at the top of his lungs: 'We are ready! We have grenades ... We are ready for whatever comes today, even if we need to die,'" she said.
Due to growing insecurity in the capital, religious leaders sent out a communique stating that the birth of Christ will be celebrated at 3 p.m. rather than during the usual midnight mass. International medical charity Doctors without Borders said that the momentary calm that prevailed after the initial arrival of French forces appears to have been shattered. In the past four days, the hospital they run in Bangui has treated 190 wounded people.
"In the days leading up to Dec. 20, we had seen fewer cases overall, and in particular a reduction in gunshot wounds," said Jessie Gaffric, project coordinator at the hospital in an email to reporters. "Then, suddenly on Dec. 20, we saw 49 gunshot wounds, and now continue to receive around 15 a day."
In a sign of spiking tension, witnesses confirmed that three Chadian civilians, attempting to flee the Central African Republic, were attacked inside their car and murdered. The Chadians, who are majority Muslim, are seen as particularly implicated in the conflict because a Chadian contingent of African Union peacekeepers is accused of having opened fire on Christian residents of Bangui.
"We have lost three of our compatriots and 10 others are wounded," said Adam Badica, a member of an organization working to repatriate Chadians from the Central African Republic. He said their car was attacked on Tuesday afternoon by a Christian militia in the Fou neighborhood.
An Associated Press journalist at the scene saw one of the bodies, his chest cut open. Belongings and glass were scattered across the street.
Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press photographer Rebecca Blackwell in Bangui, Central African Republic, and reporter Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.