DAKAR, Senegal — The exodus of tens of thousands of Muslims from Central African Republic amounts to ethnic cleansing, a top UN official and Amnesty International said Wednesday. The rights group warned that the sectarian bloodshed now underway despite the presence of thousands of peacekeepers is a ‘‘tragedy of historic proportions.’’
In a visit to the lawless capital of Bangui, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, said ethnic-religious cleansing threatens to tear up the country. He called for the international community to help the nascent interim government restore order.
His trip came a day after the UN chief used his strongest language yet to describe the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
‘‘We cannot just continue to say ‘never again.’ This, we have said so many times,’’ UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said late Tuesday. ‘‘We must act concertedly and now to avoid continued atrocities on a massive scale.’’
More than 1,000 Christians and Muslims have been killed since sectarian fighting erupted in early December and nearly 1 million in this country of 4.6 million have fled their homes.
The country’s Muslim minority, about 15 percent of the population, has come under attack from not only Christian militiamen but also mobs of civilians who have carried out public killings on a nearly daily basis in recent weeks.
In most cases, the bodies of Muslim victims were mutilated and sometimes dragged through streets or set on fire.
For months, UN and French officials have warned that a genocide could loom in Central African Republic, and Amnesty’s use of ‘‘ethnic cleansing’’ is among the strongest language invoked to describe the violence wracking the country.
Amnesty International said the term is justified ‘‘given the level of violent and purposeful forced displacement we’ve been seeing,’’ said Joanne Mariner, senior crisis adviser for the group in Bangui, the Central African Republic’s capital.
‘‘The exodus of Muslims from the Central African Republic is a tragedy of historic proportions. Not only does the current pattern of ethnic cleansing do tremendous damage to the Central African Republic itself, it sets a terrible precedent for other countries in the region, many of which are already struggling with their own sectarian and inter-ethnic conflicts,’’ the report said.
The violence against Muslim civilians is being committed by Christian militiamen known as the anti-Balaka, or anti- machete, who stepped up their attacks as a Muslim rebel government crumbled in January.
In recent days, thousands of Muslims have climbed aboard trucks destined for neighboring Chad, a predominantly Muslim country.