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DAKAR, Senegal — Tens of thousands of Muslims are being forced by Christian militias to flee the Central African Republic in what human rights groups and a top U.N. official characterized Wednesday as de facto ethnic cleansing.

The violent exodus is highlighting the powerlessness of both a 1,600-member French peacekeeping force and the country’s shaky authorities to halt spiraling religious and ethnic violence, human rights groups say.

Entire neighborhoods in the capital, Bangui, have been emptied because of attacks by the Christian militias, which originally formed to protect citizens during the nine-month rule of Muslim rebels, known as the Seleka, which ended abruptly last month. Convoys packed with Muslim citizens and heading north toward Chad have been fleeing Bangui in recent weeks.

Muslims have also been chased in large numbers from towns in the provinces — in the town of Yaloké, northwest of Bangui, nearly the entire Muslim population of 30,000 has been forced to flee, according to Human Rights Watch. Muslim shops have been looted and burned, mosques have been demolished, and homes inhabited by Muslims destroyed. The anti-balaka Christian militias — balaka means machete in the local Sango language — have turned into a violent, undisciplined gang apparently focused on revenge attacks against Muslim civilians over the brutal rule of the Seleka. Hundreds on both sides have been killed since December.

Government officials, the French soldiers who have been conducting a faltering peacekeeping operation and human rights groups do not have a clear picture of the anti-balaka — who their leaders are, whether they have a chain of command and whether the often gruesome attacks against Muslims are being coordinated. IRIN, a U.N. news agency, reported Wednesday that some former members of the country’s army had joined the anti-balaka, who often wear amulets and necklaces as supernatural protection against attack. The country’s former president, François Bozizé, who was chased out by the Seleka, has denied being in control of them.

The anti-balaka are often armed with AK-47s, daggers or machetes; Human Rights Watch reports that some now have automatic weapons. Dispersed in the population, these vigilante fighters have proved impossible for the French forces or their African peacekeeping counterparts, 5,500 strong, to root out.

The lynching of a suspected Seleka rebel by soldiers last week — immediately after a speech by the country’s new interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, and in full view of foreign journalists who had gathered to hear it — bore hallmarks of typical violence by anti-balaka forces.