“I fear that if this violence is not rapidly contained, targeted attacks based on ethnicity and religion inevitably risk increasing and leading to a real civil war,” Marie-Therese Keita Bocoum told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Fear gripped the streets of the capital Bangui after at least 36 people were killed in violence sparked by the murder on Saturday of a Muslim motor-taxi driver in the flashpoint PK-5 district of the city.
In 2013 and early last year, the area was the epicentre of an unprecedented sectarian conflict pitting Christians against Muslims.
Around 100 people were wounded in the new bloodshed and some 27 400 people fled their homes, while the government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew on the capital.
The violence raised fears of a return to the conflict that erupted in the landlocked, impoverished country after President Francois Bozize, a Christian, was ousted by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels, triggering the worst crisis since independence in 1960.
A tense calm prevailed on Wednesday as life returned tentatively to normal, with four petrol stations and several shops reopening.
UN peacekeepers and French soldiers deployed in the country since December 2013 began removing barricades that protesters set up on major thoroughfares and around the airport, where some 20,000 people have taken refuge near French and UN bases.
However, unlike other parts of the city, the PK-5 and the eighth districts were still very tense Wednesday, residents said.
Disarmament is ‘absolute priority’
Interim president Catherine Samba Panza cut short a trip to New York to take part in the UN General Assembly as fears grew of a return to sectarian conflict.
In an address broadcast on national radio late Tuesday, she appealed for peace and urged citizens to return to their homes.
Bocoum, the United Nations’ independent expert on the former French colony, said: “Disarming armed groups must be an absolute priority” ahead of presidential and general elections due by the end of the year.
She called on the government to “present a realistic and concrete plan” for disarmament and for reforming the security services.
But Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group said elections, which have already been pushed back several times, were unlikely this year.
“With international forces unable to retake control of the capital, it is difficult to imagine,” the ICG’s Central Africa project director told AFP in the Gabonese capital Libreville.
Failure to disarm and reinsert former combatants into society “will block the elections,” he warned, adding: “The current flare-up is the result of an accumulation of errors by the international community.”
The fresh unrest was sparked by the murder of a motorcycle-taxi driver in the PK-5 neighbourhood, angering Muslims who carried out reprisals against Christians in nearby districts using grenades and guns.
In response, members of the feared “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) Christian militia, which sprang up in 2013 to fight the Seleka rebels, began gathering in Bangui on Monday.
Some 20 000 terrified residents fled to camps by the airport, where French and UN peacekeepers from the 10 000-strong MINUSCA force are based.
The violence also prompted protesters calling for Samba Panza to resign to erect the barricades across Bangui.
MINUSCA denied reports that its troops on Monday killed three people others after opening fire on several hundred demonstrators heading towards the presidency to demand Samba Panza’s resignation.
UN spokesperson Rupert Colville said in Geneva that some 500 prisoners had escaped from Bangui’s main prison on Monday night, adding to the climate of insecurity.
The UN humanitarian co-ordinator in the country, Aurelien Agbenonci, strongly condemned attacks against aid organisations, adding: “All perpetrators of crimes against humanitarians will be held accountable.”
One in 10 Central Africans – 460 000 people – have sought refuge outside the country, mainly in Cameroon, Chad, DR Congo and Congo, since 2013.