BANGUI (Reuters) - Chadian peacekeepers shot dead three civilians in a Christian neighbourhood of the capital of Central African Republic on Monday, residents said.
Bangui’s Christian population accuse the Muslim Chadians of backing Muslim Seleka rebels - some of whom came from Chad - since they seized power in the mostly Christian Central African Republic and embarked on months of looting and killing.
Christian militia have carried out brutal reprisals against the Muslim minority. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, Human Rights Watch says, in violence that 2,000 French and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers have been unable to stop.
Al Qaeda’s North African wing threatened at the weekend to punish France for allowing Muslims to be killed.
Tensions flared in recent days in the Christian neighbourhood of Combattants in Bangui, where peacekeepers from Muslim Chad - part of the African Union’s MISCA mission - have clashed with residents and local militia.
“I condemn the Chadian forces. They said they came here to restore peace but it’s them who are killing us,” said Macnel Ndotowe, a resident of Combattants.
A spokesman for the Red Cross said its volunteers had recovered bodies from the neighbourhood but could not confirm how they were killed. A spokesman for the African Union peacekeeping force was not immediately available.
Local Christians accused Chadian troops of preying upon them. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have also cited evidence of this.
Humanitarian aid workers say, however, that the security situation has improved in Bangui in recent weeks, after most of the city’s Muslim population fled northward in the face of attacks by the Christian militia.
“One must understand that getting Central African Republic back on track will take time,” General Francisco Soriano, the commander of French forces, told Europe 1 radio. “But we must not ignore the progress made ... The massacres and killing that we saw on our arrival have radically dropped.”
One French soldier was killed and two others injured on a reconnaissance mission near the town of Bouar, according to a government statement issued on Sunday. It was the third French soldier killed since the deployment began in early December.
When France deployed troops in December, under a U.N. mandate to support African peacekeepers, it forecast a short mission but many observers now say it risks getting bogged down in a long struggle to rebuild the broken state.
In a statement released at the weekend, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) pledged to punish France for its intervention in Central African Republic, blaming it for continuing militia assaults on the Muslim population.
“Know that your crimes will not go unpunished and the war between us will continue,” the statement read, saying France had left Muslims defenceless by disarming Seleka.
AQIM, whose fighters were driven from an enclave in northern Mali by a French-led offensive last year, encouraged Muslims in Central African Republic to start a jihad and called on Muslims throughout Africa to strike French interests.
Islamists carried out a suicide attack on uranium mines operated by French state-owned firm Areva in Niger in May.
Experts have suggested that the religious conflict in Central African Republic could fuel Islamic militancy in a volatile region at the heart of Africa. There have been no reports to date of Islamist fighters operating on the ground in Central African Republic.
Amid rising concern among Muslims abroad, Afghanistan’s insurgent Taliban accused major countries and aid organisations of standing by in the face of a “genocide” against Muslims in the Central, in a statement issued at the weekend.
“The genocide and forced migration of the Muslims ... poses a danger to the peaceful life and co-existence of Muslims and Christians throughout Africa,” the Taliban said in a rare statement addressing matters outside Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Daniel Flynn in Dakar; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Mark Heinrich