BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — The French patrol in two armored personnel carriers showed up just as the bystanders started pulling out their mobile phones to photograph what moments ago had been a human being.
Now his body lay on the side of the road after the mob killed and mutilated him. "He was a Muslim carrying grenades," shouted one man, defending the crowd's actions. "He is Seleka," shouted another, referring to the Muslim rebels who became deeply despised by Bangui's Christian majority after they overthrew the president in March 2013 and began killing and torturing civilians.
Now, after the Seleka leader-turned-president has stepped down from power, Bangui residents are taking revenge on anyone perceived as having supported the Seleka rebels — using stones, machetes and bare hands to kill their victims in broad daylight.
The 1,600 French and 5,000 African peacekeepers in Central African Republic are struggling to keep a lid on the violence. Murderous mobs roamed the capital on Wednesday, even though the French killed 13 vigilantes, according to a French army captain who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
Crowds started to yell not long after the French patrol showed up at another murderous scene in the Miskine district of Bangui. A stone's throw from the main airport checkpoint, another Muslim man was being killed in his shop.
The French soldiers did not move. As they watched dozens rush toward the scene, they called to the peacekeeping headquarters. "The crowd seems to be moving ... awaiting orders," a French soldier said.
A good 10 minutes later they moved forward, firing in the air to disperse the gathering. From the cover of trees, they called on a group of men who had run away from the firing to come out, their hands in the air, and proceeded to secure the area.
Confident there was no threat from gunmen, they pulled back, leaving the already dead man and his workshop to the now hundreds who had gathered. The horror here has reached a level where the bodies of the dead are viciously mutilated.
Former colonizer France sent its troops in early December to stabilize a country that teetered on the brink of anarchy after the men behind the March 2013 coup failed to control the ethnic and religious violence sweeping across the country. Then Christian militia fighters who opposed the Seleka forces launched an attempted coup that led to more than 1,000 deaths in a matter of days.
Violence has continued unabated throughout Bangui, so fast that local Red Cross officials have not been able to keep up with the tally of dead. The peacekeepers have also suffered losses: In less than two months, two French soldiers have been killed while trying to disarm the former Seleka fighters.
At dusk on Wednesday crowds gathered again, this time yelling "The French are fake," and "The whites are here to kill us." African peacekeepers from Rwanda and Burundi managed to keep the mob at bay and evacuated a group of Muslims to a mosque in PK5, a traditionally Muslim neighborhood.
Before leaving, one Muslim man begged journalists to take with his 25-year-old tortoise. "If we leave it here, they will eat it," the fleeing man said, putting the 80-kilogram (175-pound) creature into a journalist's car for safekeeping.
Muslims who can are now fleeing en masse toward neighboring Chad while those left behind are in fear for their lives. "It's like they have no need for us anymore," said Mustafa Abakar, a Muslim who had sought shelter at a Seleka base now abandoned by the Muslim fighters. "And we are Central Africans, this is our country. Foreigners can go home, but where are we to go?"
As night falls on Bangui, more than 100,000 refugees huddle in makeshift tents at the French-guarded airport, bracing for another night of fear.
Jerome Delay is the chief Africa photographer for The Associated Press, and has been documenting the violence in Central African Republic since early December.