Two civilians were killed when gunmen ambushed a convoy of Muslims fleeing violence in the capital of the strife-torn Central African Republic, international peacekeepers said on Tuesday.
The convoy, bearing some 1,300 Muslims who feared killer raids by mainly Christian vigilantes, left Bangui on Sunday with a strong escort of troops from the African Union's MISCA peacekeeping mission.
The 18 lorries transporting the refugees and their possessions came under fire around 300 kilometres (185 miles) north of the capital in the region of Dekoa, one of the MISCA soldiers told AFP.
"The convoy was attacked late on Monday afternoon ... by armed men perched in the trees who opened fire on the passengers," the source said.
Two Muslim passengers were killed and six others were wounded in the ambush, which the soldier blamed on mainly Christian vigilantes known as "anti-balaka", who have targetted Muslims in Bangui for months, provoking an exodus.
MISCA troops "returned fire on the armed men who were most likely the anti-balaka operating in the region. We do not know if there were victims among them," he said.
The Muslims left the PK-12 district of Bangui, heading for the relative safety of the north in a country that plunged deep into ethnic and religious strife after a coup by mainly Muslim rebels who seized power for 10 months in March last year.
As soon as the convoy rolled out of the city, hundreds of youths who had been waiting nearby invaded PK-12 to loot and raze abandoned homes. Since then, at least 200 houses owned by Muslims have been emptied and trashed, an AFP correspondent saw Tuesday.
Outnumbered in a nation that is 80 percent Christian, other Muslims had already fled their homes elsewhere in Bangui to shelter in PK-12 in the vain hope of finding places aboard convoys headed for Chad, the CAR's northern neighbour, which is largely Muslim.
Instead, these civilians found themselves trapped for five months close to the northern road out of Bangui and they frequently came under attack from the anti-balaka, who claim to protect their own communities and to avenge atrocities by the Muslim rebels.
Anti-balaka groups routinely attack ordinary Muslim civilians for allegedly backing the Seleka rebel alliance, which made way for a transitional regime last January under strong regional and international pressure.
The convoy is expected to leave the people from PK-12 close to the Chadian border. Tens of thousands of people sharing their faith have already fled northwards, leaving the south almost empty of Muslims.
The religious and ethnic faultlines that today drive the conflict are particularly disheartening in a country where religious communities lived peacefully alongside each other for generations.
In all, about a quarter of the population of 4.6 million has been displaced and extremists from the Seleka, which has officially been disbanded, are encouraging the partition of the country.
More than 7,000 African and French peacekeepers have been deployed, with a UN-backed mandate to intervene in the event of strife and to disarm the fighters on both sides. The United Nations plans to take over with a mission of some 12,000 men as of September.