Geneva - Thousands of civilians in conflict-torn Central African Republic are at imminent risk of attack, the UN refugee agency warned Tuesday, calling for heightened security and more international troops.
More than 15 000 people in 18 locations in the northwest and southwest of the impoverished African country "are at present surrounded and under threat by armed groups", UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told reporters.
He stressed that minority Muslim civilians were "at very high risk of attack and urgently need better security" and more international troops on the ground.
His comments came ahead of a parliamentary vote in Paris that was expected to extend the French military mission in the country beyond April.
The Central African Republic has been torn by communal violence since the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels overthrew the government in March 2013 and handed power to their leader, Michel Djotodia - who was himself forced out last month for failing to rein in atrocities by his former fighters.
Despite the presence of French and African peacekeeping troops, violence has continued unabated, as so-called anti-balaka militias, mainly from the Christian majority, have retaliated against the country's Muslims.
"Atrocities have become frequent," Edwards said.
On Saturday, a mob stopped a taxi in a Bangui neighbourhood and killed the three Muslim men inside.
And last week, anti-balaka militiamen attacked a convoy of people escaping from a besieged area of the capital.
"All 21 men in the convoy were killed, leaving 119 frightened children and 19 women, who fled to a nearby village," Edwards said.
Another recent attack by the militias in Boali, north of the capital, had left 11 people dead, he said, adding that "800 traumatised survivors" had sought refuge at a church, where they were being protected by international forces.
The UNHCR and other aid organisations were responding as best they could to the situation, and as a last resort were assisting in evacuations from areas where attacks were deemed imminent, Edwards said.
"But humanitarian efforts alone cannot be sufficient," he said, calling for more international troops.
"Their numbers are far too low considering the size of the country and the scope of the crisis," he said, pointing out that nearly one million Central Africans had fled to neighbouring countries, while more than 700 000 were displaced inside the conflict-wracked nation.
The number of French peacekeepers is expected to rise from 1 600 to 2 000 to support a 6 000-strong African Union force.
The European Union plans to send 1 000 troops to the strife-torn country. A French minister said the deployment would start next month.