KABUL, Afghanistan – The Afghan Taliban on Saturday called for an end to violence against Muslims in the Central African Republic, making a rare statement on conflicts outside their region that was soon echoed by al-Qaida's North Africa branch.
Central African Republic has been wracked by sectarian violence, with Christian fighters hunting down and killing Muslim civilians in recent weeks despite the presence of thousands of French and African peacekeepers. The violence has displaced tens of thousands of Muslims in what the United Nations human rights body has called "ethnic-religious cleansing."
In a statement released Saturday, the Taliban condemned the "merciless killings" of Muslims at the hands of "bloodthirsty militias" as the world sits "idly by."
It warned that the situation threatens the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians throughout Africa and urged the international community - including the pope - to stop the bloodshed.
The comments are "more than surprising," said Nader Nadery, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based think tank.
"It has been very rare where the Taliban would comment or show concern about any development internationally that has not been linked to their cause or to their ideology," he said.
While the Taliban long have focused on their domestic conflict, Nadery said the "unusual" statement could be an effort to display Muslim solidarity or may be tied to increasing talk and demands to be recognized as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
"This is symbolically an attempt both to show they are mindful of what's happening globally and caring about the Muslim world, and they are trying to portray themselves as a state," Nadery said.
It could also suggest that the Taliban is trying to help rally international jihad, "more in line with how al-Qaida usually opines on matters from Syria to Iraq to elsewhere," said Michael O'Hanlon, an Afghan expert at The Brookings Institution, in an email.
Shortly after the Taliban statement, al-Qaida's North Africa branch also condemned the "ethnic and sectarian cleansing" in Central African Republic and blamed France, which has peacekeepers in the country, for "fomenting" the conflict.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has previously threatened French interests around the world because of France's military intervention in Mali. In its latest statement - which was picked up by Washington-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist websites - AQIM urged Muslims in Africa to strike French interests in vengeance over actions in Central African Republic.
"To the leaders and rulers of France: Know and be sure, that your crimes will not go unpunished," AQIM said.
The group urged Muslims not to remain silent about the events, saying "they are ugly massacres inflicted upon the Muslims there, before the eyes and ears of what claim to be international peacekeeping forces."
Central African Republic, long one of the world's poorest and most unstable countries, plunged deeper into chaos nearly a year ago when Muslim rebels from the north invaded the capital and overthrew the president of a decade. The rebels pillaged neighborhoods, raping and killing people with impunity for months, giving rise to Christian militias. Those fighters attempted a coup in early December, and violence between the two communities exploded in the days that followed.
The president installed by the Muslim rebels has since gone into exile, and a nascent civilian government is attempting to restore order.
Amid the violence, the world's largest bloc of Islamic countries agreed last week to send a high-level fact-finding mission to Central African Republic and to appoint a special representative to coordinate efforts with the African Union and the U.N.