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Published: Tuesday April 22, 2014 MYT 3:55:02 AM
Updated: Tuesday April 22, 2014 MYT 3:55:59 AM

French troops in Central African Republic escort Muslims to safety

BAMBARI, Central African Republic (Reuters) - French peacekeepers in Central African Republic escorted a convoy of Muslims away from the threat of violence in the capital on Monday to a town effectively controlled by Muslim rebels.

A Reuters witness said 102 Muslims guarded by 150 French troops, supported by a helicopter patrolling overhead, left the northern suburb of PK-12 on Sunday in trucks for Bambari, about 300 km (190 miles) northeast of the capital.

Almost all Muslims have fled Bangui since the Muslim Seleka rebels, who seized power in March 2013, were forced to step aside in January. The United Nations has since reported a "cleansing" of Muslims from the country's west.

Inter-communal violence has gripped Central African Republic since late 2012 when a battle for power degenerated into violence between Muslims and Christians that have forced about 1 million people from their homes.

Almost 200,000 people have fled the country since December with a further 160,000 are expected to this year.

There was no violence during the journey to Bambari, a town effectively controlled by Seleka in the centre of the country. But the fact that the Muslims went there is a sign of growing de facto partition of Central African Republic.

"I'm going to stay in Bambari. Once the country calms down I'll go back (to Bangui) but if it doesn't calm down I'll remain here," one girl in the convoy told Reuters.

The convoy passed through a Christian neighbourhood of the capital where anti-Balaka forces that have conducted much of the violence against Muslims are a powerful force.

"We don't want the Muslims to stay in Bambari ... They need to get out and go directly to Chad. That's what we want," said an anti-Balaka fighter who identified himself as Paterne.

The United Nations Security Council this month authorised a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission to be deployed in September, recognition that the 6,000 African and 2,000 French peacekeepers already there have failed to stamp their authority on the country.

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Robin Pomeroy)

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