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April 17, 2014

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C. African Republic Christian fighters criticized

Updated Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 | 7:02 a.m.

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — The Christian fighters who armed themselves to retaliate against brutal Muslim rebels came under growing criticism Tuesday, with the U.N. accusing them of contributing to a "climate of complete impunity" after the French military said they now had become enemies of peace.

Meanwhile, thousands of Muslim civilians who had not been able to flee the country last week aboard huge trucks bound for neighboring Chad sheltered at mosques and waited for armed escorts to take them out of the volatile capital.

The Christian militiamen known as the anti-Balaka initially described their movement as one to protect civilians from attacks by the Seleka rebels. In recent weeks, though, they have taken part in mob killings of Muslim civilians in a wave of violence that prompted tens of thousands of Muslims to flee the country for Chad, a predominantly Muslim neighbor.

At a mosque in the PK12 neighborhood of Bangui, some 3,500 Muslims remained Tuesday where they slept clenching bows and arrows for protection.

"We need trucks to take us to safety," said Marabu Hussein Aba Ali, as he took a break from reading his Quran. "The anti-Balaka shoot at us every day."

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned Tuesday that leaders of anti-Balaka and other armed groups would be held "personally accountable for human rights violations perpetrated by those under their control."

"Particularly worrying is the climate of complete impunity in the country, illustrated most glaringly by public statements from anti-Balaka elements claiming responsibility for the crimes and murders they have committed," he said in a statement. "Such brazen admissions are furthering the culture of impunity and encouraging more people to resort to violence.

On Monday, the head of the French military mission also had leveled criticism against the Christian militiamen. Gen. Francisco Soriano described the anti-Balaka as "enemies of Central African Republic and of peace," according to an audio recording of a news conference. Muslims have accused the French and African peacekeepers of failing to disarm the Christian anti-Balaka fighters at the same time they have been actively disarming the Muslim rebels.

French forces on Tuesday discovered an enormous arms cache in a Christian neighborhood of the capital, including anti-tank mines, more than 100 mortar rounds, plastic explosive bricks and other ammunitions.

France has sent 1,600 troops to its former colony, in addition to nearly 6,000 peacekeepers from African nations who are working to stabilize the lawless country further destabilized by the March 2013 coup.

Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Tuesday that additional security was needed including police units to maintain order on the streets of Bangui. American military involvement has largely been limited to airlifting in Burundian and Rwandan peacekeepers.

"We agree that the number of troops in CAR needs to be increased to address the very complex security situation that is existing in that country, and I commend the African governments who have committed their troops to those peacekeeping efforts," she said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also has asked France's foreign minister what can be done to increase support for the African peacekeepers and whether more troops "might be envisaged," said U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky.

The secretary-general stressed "that the international response must be robust enough to stop the violence and prevent what has a high potential to result in additional widespread atrocities," Nesirky said.

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Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Hippolyte Marboua in Bangui, Central African Republic contributed to this report.

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Follow Jerome Delay on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeromedelay.