UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Muslim and Christian leaders of the Central African Republic pleaded Friday for the U.N. Security Council to hurry and deploy peacekeepers to a country that's been ripped apart by unprecedented sectarian violence.
In their first joint appearance at the United Nations, the presidents of the country's Muslim and evangelical communities and the archbishop of Bangui warned that if quick action isn't taken, the "partition of the CAR will lead to genocidal war."
The U.N. chief's special adviser on genocide prevention, Adama Dieng, told the informal council session that about 20 percent of the country's Muslims are left in the country, meaning the others have fled or died. "Muslims are now being deliberately and systematically targeted," he warned, saying 15,000 to 20,000 remain at high risk. The "risk of genocide remains high," he said.
The U.N. describes the exodus as "ethnic-religious cleansing" and has said more than 290,000 people have fled to neighboring countries.
The United States ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, tweeted during Friday's session, "Must deploy UN Pkeeping Mission ASAP."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with the religious leaders Thursday, and on Friday he urged Security Council members to act quickly on his recommendation for a 12,000-member peacekeeping mission for the Central African Republic, long one of the world's poorest and most unstable countries.
Ban said of the religious leaders, "Together, we are sending a crucial message that the conflict in the Central African Republic is not about religion. What we are seeing is the manipulation of religious and ethnic affiliations for political purposes."
The United Nations director for Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion, told the session that his organization starting calling for a U.N. peacekeeping force in October, and if the council had acted then, peacekeepers would just now be starting to arrive.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous has said it would take about six months to organize and deploy the U.N. peacekeeping force. Nearly 6,000 African Union troops and about 1,600 French soldiers are already on the ground in the country.
The African Union has been pressing to give the AU-French force more time to accomplish its mission, and the AU envoy to the United Nations last week urged that a transfer of power to a U.N. peacekeeping force take place on Sept. 15.
"Waiting for September might be too late," Dieng, the adviser on genocide prevention, said Friday.
The violence began nearly a year ago with public anger at a Muslim rebel government that tortured and killed an untold number of mostly Christian civilians during its 10-month rule. Ordinary Muslims, who once made up 15 percent of the country's population, became targets when the president and former rebel leader went into exile in January.
Of the Muslims who once lived in the capital, Bangui, about 10 percent remain, Friday's session was told. Of the capital's 36 mosques, just eight are left. And of the 375 mosques across the country, 118 have been destroyed.
Security Council members asked what a peacekeeping mission's specific priorities should be.
"When somebody is in agony, they expect anything, anything to save someone's life," Nicolas Guerekoyame Gbangou, the president of the country's Alliance of Evangelicals, said in response. "We say to the Security Council, anything to save the Central African Republic is welcome."
Both Oumar Kobine Layama, the president of the Central African Republic Islamic Community, and Dieudonne Nzapalainga, the archbishop of Bangui, said the current African force is limited.
The imam said the pair's travels inside the country a week ago were without an escort because of those limitations.
"I am optimistic that Muslims will return to Bangui," he said after the session. "But it depends on the security situation."