BANGUI, Central African Republic — Thousands of Muslims climbed aboard trucks protected by heavily armed Chadian soldiers in a mass exodus Friday from the capital of Central African Republic. Their flight follows months of escalating attacks on anyone perceived as supporting a now-defunct Muslim rebel government blamed for scores of atrocities during its rule of this predominantly Christian country.

In The Hague, Netherlands, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced a preliminary investigation into potential war crimes or crimes against humanity in Central African Republic, saying the crisis has “gone from bad to worse” since September.

Along the streets of Bangui, crowds of Christians gathered to cheer the convoy’s departure for the neighboring country of Chad, which is mostly Muslim. It was an acrid farewell to their Muslim neighbors who had in some cases lived alongside Christians for generations here and have few ties to Chad.

The dangers for those who stayed behind were clear: One man who tumbled from the precariously overloaded trucks was brutally slain, witnesses said.

“The Christians say the Muslims must go back where they came from – that’s why we are going home,” said Osmani Benui as she fled Bangui. “We couldn’t stay here because we had no protection.”