By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS, June 24 (Reuters) - About 20,000 people are trapped in 16 minority communities in Central African Republic because "if they leave, they may be attacked before they reach safety," said the top U.N. official in the country, which has been racked by sectarian violence.
Seleka rebels, who are mainly Muslim, seized power in Central African Republic more than a year ago and perpetrated abuses on the majority Christian population that triggered waves of revenge attacks, leading to thousands of deaths and forcing about a million people to flee their homes.
United Nations envoy to the Central African Republic, retired Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye of Senegal, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that the few Muslim communities left in the capital, Bangui, remain largely confined to their neighborhoods.
"They are encircled by anti-balaka (Christian militia) who are not only preventing people from leaving but are also cutting off food and medical supplies," Gaye told the 15-member council.
"There are reports of anti-balaka targeting non Muslim individuals who are believed to be helping Muslim populations through the provision of supplies or services," he said. "Elements of the Central African Armed Forces are involved in many of these incidents alongside the anti-balaka."
U.N. officials have warned that the conflict between Muslims and Christians could spiral into genocide. Gaye said the transitional government formed in January - after the Seleka gave up power under international pressure - is trying to run the country without its own security forces and financial means.
More than 50 people have been killed in two days of clashes, witnesses and officials said on Tuesday, with foreign troops struggling to stop the fighting.
Central African Republic's minister of health and humanitarian action, Marguerite Samba, told the Security Council that the ongoing crisis in the landlocked, impoverished former French colony is not sectarian.
"It began as a community problem and the sectarian issue was a result of political manipulation. This should be stressed here. It is also the product of a negative role played by the media both on the national and international level," she said.
The violence has continued despite the presence of 2,000 French troops and some 6,000 African Union forces. In April, the U.N. Security Council authorized a U.N. peacekeeping force of up to 10,000 troops and 1,800 police, which is due to assume authority in September.
"The protection needs in the country are enormous," Gaye said. "Violations of human rights and international humanitarian law continue to be committed by all armed groups and civilians with weapons with impunity."
He added that the political elite is deeply divided and that there is a high level of antagonism and distrust among politicians and between communities. "This does not bode well for the holding of credible elections early next year," Gaye said. (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Peter Galloway)