DAKAR, Senegal — The rebels who overthrew Central African Republic's president six months ago are killing scores of civilians with impunity, in one case shooting a woman walking down the street and leaving her for dead with a wailing baby still strapped to her back, an international human rights group said Wednesday.
In a report that documented slayings and the "wanton destruction" of more than 1,000 homes, Human Rights Watch called for targeted sanctions against leaders responsible for the abuses. The group also urged the international community to help support an African Union peacekeeping mission aimed at protecting civilians in the aftermath of the March coup led by a coalition of rebel groups known collectively as Seleka.
"Seleka leaders promised a new beginning for the people of the Central African Republic, but instead have carried out large-scale attacks on civilians, looting and murder," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director for the organization.
In one attack documented by Human Rights Watch, witnesses said a self-appointed mayor "went door to door in the village, reassuring fearful residents it was safe to come out to talk to the Seleka." Five of those who did venture out from their homes were then tied together and grouped under a tree. The fighters shot them one by one, the report said. When one victim did not die, his throat was slit, witnesses recalled.
On Tuesday, the United States said it was "gravely concerned about the recent upsurge in violence" in Central African Republic.
"We remain concerned about continuing violations of international humanitarian law and reports of widespread human rights abuses by these rebels. All perpetrators of these crimes must be held accountable," said Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department.
Nestled in the heart of Africa, Central African Republic is one of the world's poorest countries where life expectancy was a mere 48 years even before the most recent crisis. The country has long been wracked by rebel groups in its north, and in late 2012 they joined forces with the sole objective of overthrowing President Francois Bozize, who had been in power for a decade.
Since taking power in March, the rebels have been blamed for abuses including widespread looting, killings, rapes and conscription of child soldiers.
Rebel leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia has pledged to restore order and organize elections by January 2015, though the attacks on civilians have only intensified since Human Rights Watch conducted its research between April and June. Earlier this month, dozens were killed and tens of thousands displaced in the northwest after a fresh wave of violence.
Djotodia has increasingly sought to distance himself from the fighters who brought him to power, publicly dissolving the Seleka rebel coalition earlier this month. His administration has repeatedly blamed the violence on fighters not linked to their movement including those who still support the ousted president.
"The Seleka leadership should control its forces, denounce killings by its members and supporters, restore civilian administration throughout the country and ensure accountability for the crimes committed," the HRW report said.
Last week, a court in the capital convicted 16 former rebels of pillaging and other crimes and sentenced them each to eight years in prison. While it marked the first time that rebel fighters had faced trial, five other co-defendants managed to escape before the verdict.
A national commission is supposed to be investigating abuses, but Human Rights Watch found that staff had not been paid or provided vehicles with which they could start their work.
The United Nations now estimates there are 225,000 people displaced within Central African Republic and nearly 63,000 new refugees have fled to neighboring countries.
Follow Krista Larson on Twitter at . https://twitter.com/klarsonafrica