BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Hundreds of Chadian soldiers began leaving neighboring Central African Republic on Friday, a day after the Chadian government said it was pulling out of the peacekeeping mission following criticism over the shooting deaths of more than 30 civilians.
The United Nations has said that its preliminary investigation found that the Chadian troops' action "was totally disproportionate as they were shooting in a crowded market full of unarmed civilians."
The Chadian soldiers maintain they were first fired upon by Christian militia fighters who oppose the presence of forces from Chad, a predominantly Muslim country. A Muslim rebel government that crumbled in January had been supported by mercenaries from Chad, who were accused of committing widespread atrocities during their 10-month rule.
Chad's foreign minister on Thursday announced that the 850 Chadians taking part in the peacekeeping mission known as MISCA would be leaving after a "gratuitous and malicious campaign" to blame them for the country's problems.
Francis Che, the head of communication for the peacekeeping mission known as MISCA, confirmed Friday that Chadian soldiers were packing their bags. A plane from neighboring Chad also had arrived Friday afternoon to begin repatriating the soldiers, he said.
Their equipment was being transported back home by road, and French forces were guarding the route being used.
The departure of the Chadians has been met with jubilation by Christians who accused them of siding with Muslim rebels. However, it has heightened fears among the 19,000 Muslim civilians who remain trapped inside their communities in Central African Republic under threat of attack from Christian militia fighters.
Tens of thousands of Muslims have been evacuated to refugee camps in neighboring Chad even though the families had lived in Central African Republic for generations. Convoys of departing Muslim civilians have come under attack, and the prime minister called on Central African Friday to let the Chadians leave in peace.
"They came to our country as friends so at the time of their return, we should do everything we can so that they can leave in peace," Prime Minister Andre Nzapayeke said.
The 850 Chadians were among a 6,000-strong African peacekeeping contingent. France has sent 2,000 troops as well in an effort to stabilize its former colony, which exploded into sectarian violence in December amid mounting anger against the Muslim rebel-led government known as Seleka. Its leader stepped aside in January, paving the way for a civilian administration that is now trying to organize national elections before February 2015.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.
Follow Krista Larson at https://www.twitter.com/klarsonafrica