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Peacekeepers, at least 12 civilians die in C. Africa clashes

By Xavier BOURGOIS and Christian PANIKA
French soldiers patrol in the Yagato district of Bangui, Central African Republic, on December 26, 2013.  By Miguel Medina (AFP)
French soldiers patrol in the Yagato district of Bangui, Central African Republic, on December 26, 2013. By Miguel Medina (AFP)

Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP) - French troops were out in force in the Central African Republic's capital Thursday after clashes that killed at least a dozen civilians, according to an official, and five Chadian peacekeepers.

Chaos gripped Bangui after heavy arms fire on Wednesday, which sent thousands of panicking residents fleeing for shelter at the airport, where French and African peacekeepers are based.

At least 12 people died in the latest wave of violence, an official at Bangui's main hospital told AFP.

"The Red Cross brought at least a dozen" bodies to the hospital morgue, the official said on condition of anonymity, adding that 46 people had been brought in with knife or gunshot wounds.

Earlier the medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders, MSF), had counted 36 injured at the hospital since Wednesday evening.

The circumstances of the Chadian deaths in Bangui, which occurred on Wednesday, were unclear, a spokesman for the African Union (AU) force of which they were a part told AFP.

"Yesterday the city was in total chaos and this chaos lasted until the end of the night. Today we are trying to understand what happened," said Eloi Yao.

The Chadian contingent of the AU peacekeeping force has been accused of siding with a mostly Muslim former rebel group in the strife-torn majority Christian country.

Top Muslim and Catholic clerics in the Central African Republic pleaded for the United Nations to "immediately dispatch" extra peacekeepers to help stop the violence, which French and African forces are struggling to contain.

In an opinion column in France's Le Monde newspaper, the Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapalainga, and Imam Omar Kobine Layama, said progress by the forces "has been fragile and the troops cannot bear the burden themselves".

The arrival of UN blue helmets "will eliminate the sentiment of fear and replace it with hope", they said.

The latest clashes prompted the French force to deploy armoured vehicles near the airport. The fighting subsided by late Wednesday.

On Thursday around 600 French peacekeepers were on patrol, according to French Lieutenant Colonel Sebastien Pelissier, focused on the restive neighbourhoods of Gobongo, near to the airport, and Pabongo in the southern part of the city.

The resource-rich but impoverished country has been wracked by escalating violence since a March coup by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels installed Michel Djotodia as the country's first Muslim president.

Although Djotodia disbanded the rebels, some of them went rogue, leading to months of killing, rape and pillaging and prompting Christians to form vigilante groups in response.

Chadians to be redeployed out of capital

A combined force of 1,600 French troops and 4,000 African Union soldiers has been struggling to restore order in the notoriously unstable nation since receiving a UN mandate in early December.

The task has been complicated by accusations that soldiers from Chad, which is mainly Muslim and which has been traditionally influential in its neighbour, have been siding with the Muslim Seleka.

The accusations have been fanned by several incidents, including one on Monday when Burundian troops in the AU force said Chadian soldiers opened fire on them as they were disarming former rebels.

The same day, Chadian peacekeepers opened fire on a stone-throwing crowd of mostly Christian protesters, killing one man and wounding around 40 more.

With tensions running high, the AU force on Wednesday said it would redeploy the Chadian contingent out of the capital to the north of the country.

According to residents reached by telephone, Wednesday's deadly clashes appear to have involved Christian vigilante groups attacking Chadian troops in the Gobongo neighbourhood.

The Chadians pushed back the attack with help from Seleka fighters, several residents told AFP.

The reports could not be confirmed with the AU force or French peacekeepers.

The Burundian peacekeepers also came under fire, they and the residents said.

"Several of our positions were attacked during the night. We pushed back the assailants without any losses to our side," the head of the Burundian contingent, Lieutenant Colonel Pontien Hakizimana, told AFP.

Early on Thursday a charred Chadian army pick-up remained on the streets in Gobongo, with a body visible inside.