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Central Africa violence fans flames of sectarian hatred

BANGUI, Central African Republic - After days of relative calm, sectarian violence once more exploded Friday in Central African Republic, claiming at least 30 lives.

BANGUI, Central African Republic - After days of relative calm, sectarian violence once more exploded Friday in Central African Republic, claiming at least 30 lives.

Despite international efforts to contain the crisis, the cleavages in the impoverished country remain wide, threatening to tear it apart.

A mob of young men wearing crucifixes attacked a mosque Friday, pounding holes into its cinderblock walls and methodically stripping apart the corrugated iron roof and tossing the pieces on the ground.

"We don't want mosques in our country," shouted Clavert Bettare, a machete strapped to his back over the din of the destruction. "We don't need them [Muslims]," because he said they make up what he thinks is a small percentage of the population.

The sweet smell of marijuana permeated the scene as young men pulled on joints and cheered on the dismantling of the mosque and ripped up the Arab language books and pamphlets they found inside.

The night before, this neighborhood of Gobango had witnessed clashes between rival Muslim and Christian militias that spiraled into a firefight when Chadian troops from the African Union peacekeeping force rolled up and began shooting at the civilians, residents said.

A government statement Friday said the Chadian troops responded after being attacked by a grenade hurled by Christian militias, whom they accused of kidnapping people and terrorizing the population.

In Gobango, however, residents' anger at the Chadians, whom they see as allied to the Muslim president, Michel Djotodia, had spilled over into rage against all Muslims.

"Theirs is a culture of hate. We aren't like that. All the mosques must go," Bettare said as the crowd of angry young men and women shouted in agreement.

Muslims make up about 15 percent of Central African Republic's population and have largely lived in harmony with the country's Christian majority. The takeover by mainly Muslim rebels this spring, however, has inflamed sectarian tensions, sparking attacks by Christian militias against Muslim neighborhoods, while the president's forces are accused of revenge attacks.

International response

Fears of mass atrocities and possibly genocide has spurred an international response spearheaded by 1,600 French troops backed by African forces from Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Burundi and Gabon. The U.S. has pledged $100 million to help equip and train these forces.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, a reputed scholar on genocide, visited Central African Republic on Thursday and prophetically warned the president that only by holding those accountable for atrocities could the cycle of revenge attacks be halted.

"Absent particular individuals being held accountable for the crimes being committed, there is a real risk that whole groups will be held responsible," she told reporters prior to her departure. "People will start to resent all members of a religious community."

Hospital is crowded

On Friday, at least 40 injured crammed the Bangui community hospital, many from a daybreak attack on a Muslim neighborhood by antigovernment Christian militias. At least three people died from their wounds.

Red Cross estimates that the toll since the fighting started Thursday evening was more than 30 dead, bringing the number killed since the Dec. 5 uprising by Christian militias and former regime soldiers to 583.

Angry Muslims from the neighborhood, known as Kilometer 5, later attacked a car full of French journalists after the violence, blaming France for only disarming Muslim militias.

No reconciliation

Just days before in a meeting with a local imam near the mosque, residents castigated him for adopting a reconciliatory attitude toward Christians when their community was under attack.

"There has been discrimination against Muslims for the last 50 years, and for the last 50 years we've had a Christian president and then for the first time we have a Muslim president it is a problem," businessmen Mahamet Abdel Rahim said.

Next to him, Ahmed Namarwa maintained that Muslims have always been a part of society, but feared that there was an attempt to wipe them out.

"They came here to exterminate the Muslims," he said, describing how his sister and her husband were killed by Christian militias. "Reconciliation could happen, but a lot of work has to be done to bring together Muslims and Christians."

The international community is hoping that the African and French troops can stop the violence, disarm the warring groups and buy time for the two sides to work out their differences peacefully.