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geoffrey york

A mother and her child, who is suffering from malnutrition, share a bed at a pediatrics hospital in Bangui.CAMILLE LEPAGE/Reuters

At the mosque where the dead bodies arrive, it was another day of horror and grief. Five bloodied bodies of young Muslim men lay on the mosque floor, while their parents wept in the courtyard outside. Gunshots echoed in the nearly abandoned streets, where a sixth body lay uncollected.

In another fast-emptying neighbourhood a few kilometres away, thousands of Muslims waited for transport to take them away from the Central African Republic's capital. They huddled on the street, close to a French military post. Some pointed to nearby buildings, from which gunshots and grenades have been fired at them.

Even as European and African governments pledge more troops for this shattered country, with France voting on Tuesday to prolong its military mission, the extreme violence is growing worse. What began as a political struggle is becoming a sectarian war, with ferocious killing by Christians and Muslims who once lived peacefully together.

"We are living in a prison," said Abdouraman Saudi, a 45-year-old businessman who stood outside the mosque where grieving family members sobbed in Bangui's largely Muslim PK5 neighbourhood.

"If we try to go outside PK5, we are dead men," he said. "But we won't be the victims any more. We will be the aggressors. From today, we have to attack every Christian area."

Both sides are increasingly acting in the name of revenge. The largely Christian "anti-balaka" militia has launched vicious assaults on Muslims, blaming them for horrific atrocities against civilians after the predominantly Muslim rebel movement known as Seleka seized power last year.

"Revenge is good sometimes, and it's bad sometimes, but we have to do it," said Sebastien Wenezoui, an anti-balaka leader.

At his militia camp on Bangui's outskirts, Mr. Wenezoui said the Muslims must leave the country. "When Seleka took power, the Muslims who were our best friends were the ones who betrayed us, destroying our homes and killing our people," he said. "Now they are leaving, and it's a lesson to them."

While the Seleka are largely gone from Bangui, the Muslims have formed their own armed units to defend themselves against the anti-balaka militia. The African and French peacekeeping troops, meanwhile, are often accused of their own abuses.

After the five bodies were brought to the mosque in the PK5 neighbourhood on Tuesday, nobody could agree exactly who killed them. Everyone agreed that it began when anti-balaka fighters arrived in their neighbourhood to loot the abandoned homes. They were confronted by armed Muslim men, and then Burundian troops arrived. Some said all of the Muslims were shot dead by the Burundians. Others said two of the Muslims were killed by the anti-balaka militia, while the others were killed by the peacekeepers.

Regardless of who pulled the trigger, the death toll continues to climb. Red Cross officials have collected 1,240 bodies from Bangui's streets since Dec. 5, but that total excludes Muslims such as the victims on Tuesday who are collected and buried by their relatives.

Across the country, the toll is far higher. Tens of thousands have been killed in the past few months, according to estimates by human rights groups. Nearly one-quarter of the country's 4.5 million people have fled their homes, and most are in dire need of food aid, according to United Nations agencies.

While the militias clash, thousands of innocent civilians are caught in the middle, often dying by machete or bullets. Many children have been killed by stray bullets or deliberate attack, and some have died in desperate attempts to flee.

In one horrifying tragedy on the night of Feb. 18, five children suffocated to death in an overcrowded truck as a convoy of Muslims fled the PK12 district of Bangui, where Muslims have been targeted for looting and killing. Aid workers said the five children, including two infants, were found dead when the convoy arrived at Bangui's military airport.

At least 133 children have been killed or maimed in the past two months, including some who were beheaded or mutilated, according to Unicef, the United Nations children's agency. "The humanitarian crisis in Central African Republic has reached a catastrophic level," Unicef said on Tuesday. "Children are increasingly targeted because of their religion, or because of their community."

At the main pediatric hospital in Bangui, an anesthetist unwraps a gauze bandage to reveal a bullet from a Kalashnikov machine gun. The stray bullet was extracted from a six-month-old baby in an operation at the hospital on Sunday night. "Luckily it was a flesh wound," said the anesthetist, Allesandra Napoleone, from an Italian emergency aid agency.

But other wounds to children are far more serious, including machete wounds that often become infected, forcing doctors to amputate limbs. "Very small children – it's incredible," Ms. Napoleone said.

Several wards of the hospital are filled with children who have suffered injuries in the recent violence. One toddler named Alexis is swaddled in bandages, from his face to his abdomen, after he and his father were shot by Seleka gunmen last month in a rural district. The same bullet killed his father and destroyed nearly half of the two-year-old's face.

Many others were killed as the Seleka attackers pursued families into the bush. The next day, when the bodies were collected, the child was discovered, crying but still alive. His face was crudely sutured, but the injury became badly infected, and he was transferred to the hospital in Bangui, which managed to save his life.

Central African Republic: quick overview

Population in 2011: 4,487,000

Population of capital, Bangui: 740,000

Major languages: French, Sangho (lingua franca)

Major religions: Christianity, Islam, indigenous beliefs

GDP per capita in 2011: $489 (U.S.)

Inflation rate in 2010: 38 per cent

Percentage of population under 14, 2012: 39.9

Life expectancy at birth, females: 51.3 years

Life expectancy at birth, males: 47.7 years

Infant mortality rate: 95 deaths per 1,000 live births (fourth worst rate in the world)

Sources: Reuters, United Nations, Central Intelligence Agency

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