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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's a phrase the United Nations uses to describe what's happening in the Central African Republic: They call it ethnic religious cleansing. That troubling phrase sums up a crisis in a country the size of Texas. A coup last year led to chaos and Muslims massacring Christians, after which Christians turned on Muslims. Nearly one-fourth of the country's people have fled their homes. French and African peacekeepers have mostly failed to stop the violence.

Our colleague, Gregory Warner, is in the Central African Republic. In this important report, which lasts about four minutes, he is going to describe some of what is happening. And we should warn you that some people will find the facts and disturbing.

(SOUNDBITE OF A METAL GATE)

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Wazili Yaya has been custodian of the Ali Babalo Mosque in the capital Bangui since it was built 19 years ago by a wealthy merchant, its painted arches a testament to a Muslim community that makes up a minority of this mainly Christian country, but the vast majority of its traders and merchant class.

(SOUNDBITE OF A METAL GATE)

WARNER: An unlocked door opens on a low, white basin.

WAZILI YAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: This is where we prepare the corpses, he says. There were 40 this week. Wazili pulls out his cellphone to show me photos.

YAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: All the bodies show signs of violence way beyond what was needed to kill.

YAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: There he's been decapitated...

YAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: ...with a machete wound to his head.

YAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: So, every time you get a body, you take photographs?

YAYA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Even in one of the poorest countries in Africa, the ubiquity of camera phones means the wounds live on after bodies are buried. They're texted and shared, and they become part of the terror that's driving tens of thousands of Muslims over the border to become refugees in Chad or Cameroon.

DONATELLA ROVERA: Those who are stating their determination to get rid of the Muslim population are making good on their threats.

WARNER: Donatella Rovera is a senior crisis advisor for Amnesty International. She's been driving around the country talking to survivors.

ROVERA: What we are seeing is the Muslim civilian population paying the price for the atrocities committed by the previous regime.

WARNER: That regime, called the Seleka, came to power last March in a coup led by militias from the mostly Muslim northeast of the country. It wasn't a religious takeover. There wasn't any talk of Islamic law. But it did feel to people in the capital like their city was being marauded. The mostly Muslim fighters committed atrocities against the mostly Christian population. And many here accuse Muslim civilians of supporting the assault, even joining in to loot and kill and rape their Christian neighbors.

When French forces arrived in December and forced the Muslim fighters to retreat, and the Muslim president stepped down, the Muslim civilians were exposed to a Christian majority bent on revenge. That's why in every grainy video of Muslims being lynched - remember, those camera phones are everywhere - you hear bystanders cheering.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: One of the most viral videos is just 19 seconds long. It shows a young guy posing like a rapper, holding a burnt human leg. He mugs for the camera, brings the leg up to his mouth and then bites with staged relish into the thigh.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: The guy who showed me this video on his phone is Azulo Fahti. He says he knows this little man, as he called him.

AZULO FAHTI: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: He's a laborer, an off-loader who used to unload large trucks for Muslim traders. Though the Cannibal - as the press later called him - told reporters that he killed one Muslim stranger to avenge three Christian relatives, mob justice in this country has also been cover for private vengeances. Ethnic cleansing can mean getting to loot your neighbor's television or kill someone who looks like your former boss. And neither African peacekeepers nor French troops now patrolling this city have been able to stop the violence.

Human rights workers say that French troops have observed lynchings without intervening.

ROVERA: What we can see is inaction.

WARNER: Donatella Rovera, from Amnesty International, says that peacekeepers got mixed up. They were deployed last year when the situation was different. They were supposed to protect Christians from Muslims. Then they were caught unprepared when Muslim civilians became the new victims.

ROVERA: The greatest mistake, I think, was a failure in recognizing how fast things were changing on the ground.

WARNER: She says recently, there's been an awakening. Yesterday, the French minister of defense flew here to call for the protection of Muslim civilians, as well. But Rovera says the Christian militias have already expanding their target, killing Christians they call sympathizers.

ROVERA: Today, their primary aim is to get rid of the Muslim population. But what will they do next?

WARNER: And the longer these groups are running the streets, she says, the harder it will be for international peacekeepers to dislodge them. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Bangui.

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