BANGUI, Central African Republic, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- The mineral-rich Central African Republic is collapsing into chaos amid a worsening religious conflict between Christians and Muslims that could trigger genocide and bring more upheaval to a region already beset by turmoil, observers warn.
"The situation ... is horrendous," Gerard Araud, France's ambassador to the United Nations, said last week after the Security Council was briefed on the swelling bloodbath in the former French colony.
"The state has collapsed and this country is now simply plundered, looted, the women are raped, people are killed by thugs," he said. "The country has fallen into anarchy."
"If we don't act now, and decisively, I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring," warned Adama Dieng, U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide.
The predominantly Christian CAR has been torn by violence since a loose alliance of five Muslim rebel groups known as the Seleka seized the capital Bangui in March, unseated President Francois Bozize and installed one of their leaders, Michel Djotodia, as transitional president.
As the bloodletting worsened, Djotodia, the first Muslim to run the country, announced the dissolution of the Seleka Sept. 13 in an apparent bid to disassociate himself from the rebel savagery, looting and raping that has killed hundreds of people and driven 500,000 from their homes.
The World Food Program says 1.1 million people face severe food shortages because of the crisis.
The country of 4.6 million people is rich with minerals, including uranium, gold and diamonds. But decades of instability and endemic corruption have left the CAR trapped in poverty and continual crisis.
But several Seleka leaders continue to wage their own wars with Christians who claim to be supporters of the ousted Bozize, who seized power in 2003 in one of the many coups that have plagued the country since the French departed 53 years ago.
Djotodia blames the Christians, who have formed self-defense groups to counter the marauding Seleka, for the bloodshed. Oxford Analytica says Djotodia "has become the main perpetrator of violence against civilians."
Bozize is said to be in East Africa plotting a comeback that's only likely to worsen the crisis.
Godfrey Byaruhanga, Amnesty International's CAR researcher, said Seleka soldiers have been responsible for widespread sexual violence, forcibly recruiting child fighters and recruiting criminals and foreign fighters from neighboring Chad and Sudan drawn by the volatile situation.
"The situation's totally appalling and the government appears to be either not able or willing to prevent these soldiers from continuing with the human rights crimes," he said.
"Long term, the problem is that this could lead to the CAR people becoming completely ungovernable and it becoming a failed state, and the repercussions will not be felt just in the CAR, but are beyond in neighboring African countries."
Some observers fear the CAR could become a safe haven for the armed groups that proliferate in the region, particularly war-torn, mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo.
Fugitive Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army, including child soldiers, are already believed to be using the CAR as a hideout from their pursuers, which include U.S. Special Forces.
The religious aspect of the bloodletting has heightened alarm since the Muslim attacks on Christians reflects similar conflicts involving Islamist militants in Somalia in East Africa, Nigeria in West Africa, as well as from Mauritania eastward along the Mediterranean rim, all linked to al-Qaida or its regional affiliates.
The Somalia conflict is spreading to Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, which are mainly Christian. There have been sectarian murders and clashes in Zanzibar and Tanzania in recent months.
Two weeks ago, the U.N. Security Council authorized the deployment of a 250-strong military force to protect U.N. workers in the CAR.
There's pressure for a full-scale U.N. peacekeeping deployment, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to report within days on possible intervention.
The African Union plans to deploy a 3,600-man peacekeeping force, but that won't be operational before 2014.
Meantime, France appears reluctant to step in, although it has a 400-strong force guarding Bangui airport and patrolling districts where it has interests.
It sent a 4,000-man task force into northern Mali in January to help African militaries crush a jihadist takeover there. But Paris seems doesn't seem to want to get involved in another African hot spot.