BANGUI, Central African Republic — Dozens of Muslims marched down the streets of Bangui on Tuesday to demand the departure of French troops, who were deployed to the Central African Republic this month to try to pacify fighting but instead have been accused of taking sides in the nation’s sectarian conflict.
The marchers, almost all of them young and male, began their demonstration in the Kilometer 5 neighborhood, a mostly Muslim section of the capital that has been the scene of clashes with French forces.
It marks a turning point for the more than 1,600 French soldiers sent here, who were initially cheered by a population that ran out to greet them, waving tree branches and holding up pieces of cardboard emblazoned with welcoming messages.
That was before French President François Hollande bluntly said that the country’s Muslim president needed to go and before French forces were accused of only disarming Muslim fighters and ignoring the Christian militias who have infiltrated the city, organizing attacks on mosques and neighborhoods like Kilometer 5, where a majority of Muslims live.
On Tuesday, the crowds making their way down the deserted city streets were holding signs that said: “We say No to France!” and “Hollande = Liar.” Other signs had a hand-drawn map of this nation located at the heart of Africa, but showed the country split in two, with a Muslim homeland penciled in in the north.
The Central African Republic slipped into chaos following a coup in March that was led by a Muslim rebel group. The rebels overran the capital and installed a Muslim president, while the nation’s Christian leader was forced to flee with his family.
The country is 85 percent Christian, and when the Muslim rebels began attacking Christian villages, a sectarian divide emerged. Pillaging turned to killing, and by the time French forces arrived earlier this month, at least 500 people had been killed in communal violence, including mob lynchings, their bodies so numerous, community leaders had to dig enormous holes for their mass graves.
The French have stepped up patrols and are working to debunk perceptions that they are biased. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Vincent Floreani on Tuesday reacted to accusations that the French force, known as Sangaris, had targeted Muslims.
“Since their deployment Dec. 5, the soldiers of the Sangaris operation are operating according to three principles: impartiality, firmness and controlled use of force,” he said. “They are demonstrating this daily, in contributing to the disarming of all armed groups, without distinction, and in intervening between groups to avoid violence and abuses.”