BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — The victims' male relatives touched their foreheads to the ground in prayer atop a small hill as more than a dozen workers below began preparing the communal grave.
The imam urged them to be careful not to dig too close to the other freshly buried plot just beside them, with the death toll mounting from sectarian fighting between Christians and Muslims as the country's political crisis deepens.
With pickaxes and sticks they plunged their tools deep into the soil until the pit was as high as their shoulders, and groundwater up to their knees. With their mouths covered to soften the stench of death, the crews began slowly lowering the bodies wrapped in white plastic off a garbage truck and into the earth below — 16 in all.
Men in long white traditional Muslim gowns stroked prayer beads and wiped tears from their eyes, while others exhausted from digging the burial site lay in the tall grass nearby covered in mud.
This was no ordinary burial ceremony: Guarding the perimeter in the field of banana trees were scores of regional peacekeepers on high alert. In a sign of just how tense Bangui has become, armored personnel carriers escorted the funeral procession to this remote cemetery so that this community of Muslims could bury their victims in peace.
Sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians has left more than 500 people dead since Dec. 5, and more than 100,000 people displaced within the capital alone, aid officials say. While some of the victims did at one time belong to a mostly Muslim rebel group and may in fact have fired at French soldiers, others are civilians targeted because of transposed rage.
Human rights groups have warned that Muslim civilians in Bangui are especially vulnerable because they are a minority in a country where 85 percent of the population is Christian, and where fury has grown about the abuses committed by the Muslim ex-rebels.
Hilaire Youssef came to pay his respects to his older brother Mohamed, whom he said was fatally shot as he stepped out of his vehicle when a French patrol stopped them on Tuesday.
"He didn't even resist," Youssef said in anger, gazing down at the men who began filling the communal grave with palm branches and rocky earth. "The process of disarmament is an injustice."
In recent days, scores of Muslims have been killed by angry mobs who accuse them of being members of the Seleka rebel coalition that overthrew the president. A crowd in one neighborhood picked up rocks and stoned one man to death. In another part of the capital, angry youth set a mosque ablaze and tried to tear down its walls with axes.
Thousands of mostly Muslim rebels from the north of Central African Republic known as Seleka descended en masse upon the capital in March and overthrew the Christian president of a decade.
Their grievances at the time were political and economic: Rebel leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia complained about decades of disenfranchisement in the north, cut off from the rest of the country and the world due to a lack of roads and phone service.
Once in power, Seleka proved deeply unpopular with Central Africans especially those in Bangui. Within hours of arrival they began pillaging and stealing vehicles, food — even robbing an orphanage. Human rights groups say during their nearly nine months in power, they have raped and killed an untold number of civilians, leading to growing animosity toward anyone suspected of being linked to the group.
Sectarian bloodshed erupted last week when a Christian militia that opposes the ex-Seleka rebels in power attacked the capital. In the days that followed, more than 500 people were slain. That toll has mostly included bodies collected from hospitals and the streets, and does not include many Muslim victims who must be buried within 24 hours in accordance with religious tradition.
On Wednesday, the Noor Mosque in Bangui's volatile PK5 neighborhood prepared the 16 bodies for burial, bringing the total number of victims since Thursday to 94, said Hamza Issa.
Throngs of men crowded around the gate at the mosque's entrance as the bodies were brought out. Under the armed protection of African regional peacekeepers the funeral cortege of pickup trucks and motorcycles weaved its way through town, passing a checkpoint manned by French troops on the way to the cemetery.
Hassan Danzouma, 24, said Muslims are afraid to lay down their weapons so long as the Christian militias are still at large.
"They have destroyed mosques and it's a declaration of holy war on the Muslim community," he said. "We call on the international community to open their eyes or else there will be more carnage. There will be a genocide in this country and if we are attacked, we will fight until the end."
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