BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Top members of the rebel coalition loyal to Central African Republic's former president fled the capital under the protection of Chadian peacekeepers Sunday, witnesses said, suggesting the rebels' demise could be imminent.
A convoy of up to nine cars packed with members of the mostly Muslim Seleka coalition was spotted about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the capital, Bangui, Human Rights Watch emergencies director Peter Bouckaert said.
The convoy was guarded by Chadian peacekeepers and was being led by six armored personnel carriers, Bouckaert said. Chadian peacekeepers have been accused of supporting Seleka throughout the conflict.
Gen. Mahamat Bahr, the head of military intelligence under ex-President Michel Djotodia who resigned earlier this month, was among the officials, he said.
"This is the most significant departure of Seleka commanders probably since Djotodia resigned," Bouckaert said.
Seleka brought Djotodia to power in March 2013, but Djotodia was never able to keep the fighters under control, prompting the formation of a mostly Christian militia to respond to Seleka abuses.
More than 1,000 people were killed during several days of violence alone last month, and nearly 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes, with 100,000 living in and around the Bangui airport.
Under mounting pressure, Djotodia resigned at a regional summit in Chad and has sought exile in the West African nation of Benin.
Catherine Samba-Panza has since been appointed interim president, and her government faces the daunting task of restoring security, fostering reconciliation and organizing elections.
Bouckaert said he spotted the convoy north of Bangui before the road splits in two, with one route heading toward Cameroon and another heading toward Chad.
He said Bahr called him just two days ago sounding "very depressed," talking of possible exile and lamenting "the end for Seleka."
Violence has continued in pockets of Bangui in recent days. On Sunday, residents said armed Muslim men in the Miskine neighborhood blasted a taxi with a grenade. On Friday, Christian militiamen used machetes to kill a prominent Muslim former government minister who supported last year's rebellion.
The exodus of Seleka leaders could leave rank-and-file fighters more vulnerable to reprisal attacks, Bouckaert said.
"It's certain to add to the tension in the coming days," he said.
The threat of further violence is also palpable in other parts of the country. In a statement issued Sunday, Amnesty International warned that both Christian and Muslim civilians in parts of northwest Central African Republic were "in imminent danger of attack" because of a heavy militia presence and the absence of peacekeepers.
"More deaths are very likely but this could be prevented by even a small presence of international peacekeepers," Amnesty senior crisis adviser Donatella Rovera said.
Corey-Boulet reported from Dakar, Senegal.