BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Thousands of jubilant residents took to the streets of Central African Republic's capital to celebrate Tuesday after peacekeepers escorted dozens more rebels from military bases in the latest sign the fighters are losing their grip on the country following nearly a year of abuses.
Their departure from Camp Kasai comes a day after others left the hillside Camp de Roux in downtown Bangui for another base on the northern outskirts, witnesses said. Other top brass from the Seleka movement was escorted north of the capital on Sunday, believed to be heading toward neighboring Chad.
"We are liberated! This is our New Year!" the crowds shouted as the rebels left under the protection of French and African regional forces.
The mostly Muslim rebels known as Seleka came from the country's far north in March 2013 to overthrow the president of a decade, backed by mercenary forces from Chad and Sudan. Their 10-month reign was marked by widespread human rights abuses and deepening divisions between the country's Muslim minority and Christian majority.
Bitter hatred over their rule has led to mobs carrying out public killings and lynchings of anyone perceived as being part of Seleka. Even the departure of Seleka leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia has failed to bring peace.
The commander of the French forces in CAR says organizing the ex-Seleka withdrawal hasn't been easy. The problem of lawless bands of Christian militiamen known as the anti-Balaka remains even as Seleka forces are concentrated in the PK11 district.
"Things could be a bit simpler and that's what we have explained to them — that it'll be easier if they are concentrated in one place," French Gen. Francisco Soriano told The Associated Press. "But anyway it's been a lot easier than dealing with those (anti-Balaka) who are out and about and who are continuing to cause trouble."
While the departure of Seleka forces was welcomed by Christian civilians with joy, the United Nations has warned that the exodus also has left Muslim civilians more vulnerable to retaliatory attacks from armed Christian militiamen known as the anti-Balaka.
On Tuesday, heavy gunfire rang out through several residential neighborhoods in the north of Bangui.
"They've just increased the number of Seleka here by 600 men. They fired on us with heavy weapons all morning," said Mathurin Dimbele, who lives in the PK10 district.
There were no immediate reports of injuries and the local Red Cross said it could not provide a toll because security conditions prevented its teams from entering affected areas.
Dimbele said his neighborhood is surrounded by armed groups. "We are surrounded by anti-Balaka on one side, the Seleka on another and armed Peul Muslims on another side too.
"We are calling on the country's authorities and the international forces to rapidly begin the process of disarming these people," he added.
Humanitarian organizations have called for African Union and French forces in Central African Republic to deploy more strongly outside the capital and especially in remote areas where they said any killings might never be reported.
At the deserted Camp Kasai base, about a dozen or so Muslims who had sought refuge among Seleka fighters said they didn't know where to go.
"It's like they have no need for us anymore," said Mustafa Abakar. "And we are Central Africans, this is our country. Foreigners can go home, but where are we to go? "
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press journalists Andrew Drake and Hippolyte Marboua in Bangui, Central African Republic contributed to this report.
Follow Jerome Delay on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeromedelay and Krista Larson at https://twitter.com/klarsonafrica.