Armed groups in the Central African Republic have killed hundreds of civilians in an unfettered spree of bloodletting, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wednesday.
The group issued a 92-page report ahead of the impending opening of a Special Criminal Court, a new judicial body that will probe rights violations in the country since 2003.
Investigators found evidence of more than 560 civilian deaths and the destruction of more than 4,200 homes by militias since late 2014, HRW said.
But this was likely to be just a small fraction of the total crimes that had been committed, it cautioned.
The killings had occurred “with wholesale impunity,” the watchdog said.
“Over the past two years, hundreds of witnesses told us of brazen war crimes committed by Seleka and anti-balaka fighters across the centre and eastern part of the Central African Republic,” HRW researcher Lewis Mudge said.
“The lack of justice for these crimes has left fighters free to terrorise civilians at will, and fuelled ongoing revenge attacks.”
One of the world’s poorest nations, CAR was pitched into a civil war between Muslim and Christian militias in 2013, unleashed when President Francois Bozize was overthrown by a coalition of Muslim-majority rebel groups called the Seleka.
They in turn were ousted by a military intervention led by former colonial ruler France.
Those events sparked the bloodiest sectarian violence in the country’s history as mainly Christian militias sought revenge.
Christians, who account for about 80 percent of the population, organised vigilante units dubbed “anti-balaka”, a reference to the machetes used by the rebels.
The HRW evidence adds to a UN report issued on May 30 that covers crimes committed in the country from 2003 to 2015.
In it, the United Nations documented “appalling” crimes by the army, armed groups and international forces.
It put forward evidence of gang rape, sexual slavery, the torching of entire villages and possibly genocide.
The SCC is a hybrid court embedded in the country’s legal system but incorporating national and international judges.
Its prosecutor took the oath of office on June 30. The court itself is scheduled to become operational in October.