— Dozens of people have been killed in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, raising fears of a return to the sectarian killings that have torn the country apart over the last two years.
The clashes prompted the country’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, to return home early on Monday from New York
, where she was attending the United Nations General Assembly. They also threatened to derail a peace process that includes a presidential election scheduled for Oct. 18.
At least 37 people were killed and more than a hundred were wounded in clashes that erupted in the city after the body of a young motorcycle-taxi driver was discovered on Saturday, said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations human rights commissioner.
Some reports, still unconfirmed, said the man’s body had been inscribed with slogans that showed he had been targeted because he was Muslim.
The country’s religious divide — Muslims predominate in the north, and Christians in the south — has largely driven conflict in the past, and threatened to do so again.
“At the sight of the mutilated body, young neighborhood self-defense militiamen wanted to avenge the killing of the Muslim,” Moctar Mahamat, one of the few residents left in the capital’s once-vibrant Muslim Quarter, said in a phone interview.
Some 27,000 people in the capital have fled their homes, many for a camp for internally displaced people beside the Bangui airport.
The violence has contributed to a breakdown of law and order. Around 60 inmates broke out of a jail in the western market town of Bouar early Tuesday, after the escape of more than 500 prisoners — including some who had been involved in armed violence — from the main jail in Bangui on Monday night.
“This is a huge setback for the preservation of law and order and for the fight against impunity, which has been and remains a chronic problem in C.A.R.,” Mr. Colville said.
Mr. Colville, who called the situation “a crucial moment for the Central African Republic,” urged the authorities to cooperate with United Nations and other international peacekeeping forces to thwart what he said appeared to be a deliberate attempt to derail a fragile 18-month peace process.
“I don’t think one can overestimate the risk of things getting worse,” he said.
The carnage of 2012 to 2014 killed thousands of people, displaced an estimated 380,000 and sent 464,000 people fleeing to neighboring countries, according to United Nations estimates. Around 2.7 million people, close to half the population, need humanitarian support.
The United Nations peacekeeping force in the country, about 13,000 troops, has been struggling to keep up with its mission. The leaders of armed groups active in that carnage have no interest now in seeing the country stabilize, United Nations officials say.
Large groups of heavily armed men were reportedly roaming the capital and a number of other towns, said a spokesman for the refugee agency, Leo Dobbs. He added that colleagues in Bangui had reported shootings in parts of the city.
Among other casualties of the violence, three teenagers were killed on Monday, including one who was decapitated, and four children, ages 7 to 17, were wounded by gunshots or grenade fragments during a clash between armed groups, the United Nations children’s agency, Unicef, reported.
The International Organization for Migration said that its offices in Bangui had been ransacked and looted by a mob over the weekend, and that American Marines were deployed to rescue two of the organization’s employees in a neighborhood that rioters were approaching.