BANGUI, Central African Republic — The Christian fighters who armed themselves to retaliate against brutal Muslim rebels came under growing criticism Tuesday, with the UN accusing them of contributing to a ‘‘climate of complete impunity’’ after the French military said they now had become enemies of peace.
In a sign that France may be stepping up its efforts to disarm the Christian anti-Balaka fighters, French troops on Tuesday seized a large weapons cache from a Christian neighborhood of Bangui. Among the weapons found there were antitank mines and more than 100 mortar rounds.
Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, an anti-Balaka leader, responded Tuesday by defending his fighters as ‘‘young Central Africans who had risen up and sacrificed their lives for the people when no regular army existed to protect the nation.’’
Meanwhile, thousands of Muslim civilians who had not been able to flee the country last week aboard huge trucks bound for neighboring Chad sheltered at mosques and waited for armed escorts.
The Christian militiamen initially described their movement as one to protect civilians from attacks by the Seleka rebels, who overthrew the president of a decade leaving the national army in shambles. In recent weeks, though, they have taken part in mob killings of Muslim civilians in a wave of violence that prompted tens of thousands of Muslims to flee the country for Chad.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN high commissioner for human rights, warned that leaders of anti-Balaka and other groups would be held ‘‘personally accountable for human rights violations perpetrated by those under their control.’’
‘‘Particularly worrying is the climate of complete impunity in the country, illustrated most glaringly by public statements from anti-Balaka elements claiming responsibility for the crimes and murders they have committed,’’ he said. ‘‘Such brazen admissions are furthering the culture of impunity and encouraging more people to resort to violence.’’
On Monday, the head of the French military mission also had criticized the Christian militiamen. General Francisco Soriano described the anti-Balaka as ‘‘enemies of Central African Republic and of peace,’’ according to an audio recording of a news conference.
The anti-Balaka leader called the violence ‘‘isolated committed by unknown individuals,’’ adding that many people in the country have a desire for revenge.
Muslims have long accused French and African peacekeepers of failing to disarm the Christian anti-Balaka fighters at the same time they have been disarming Muslim rebels.
France has sent 1,600 troops to its former colony, in addition to nearly 6,000 peacekeepers from African nations who are working to stabilize the lawless country further destabilized by the March 2013 coup.
Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Tuesday that additional security was needed to maintain order in Bangui.