Mobs ransack Muslim shops in chaotic Bangui
Machete-wielding looters swayed down the street like a drunken posse, lunging from one shop to another, but the French armoured convoy leaving base drove right past.
A stone's throw from Bangui airport, where French President Francois Hollande was due to land later Tuesday, bare-chested pillagers took everything they could, using their shirts to tie their loot in a bundle.
To a gaggle of journalists on the scene, one frenzied looter paused to shout: "Some of us are working here!"
For a few hours, chaos engulfed the aptly-named Combattant neighbourhood, near the site of an overnight ambush that claimed the lives of two French soldiers.
Fear changed sides in the Central African capital when 1,600 French forces deployed last week to subdue marauding gangs of renegade rebels from the mainly Muslim Seleka group.
But as French troops -- with their gun-bristling convoys, hi-tech equipment and helicopters -- pressed on with their mission to disarm holdout Seleka fighters, vengeful members of the country's Christian majority were exacting payback.
Little clusters of looters chanting racist slogans fanned out across the area, plundering shops they believed to be Muslim-owned.
While some members of Seleka -- a motley alliance of Muslim rebels and foreign warlords -- have remained loyal to the man they brought to power in March, others have gone rogue.
The reign of terror they imposed on large swathes of the Central African Republic in recent months spawned Christian vigilantes and inflamed sectarian tension.
As the French soldiers, making their way to other destinations, passed by the looters, peacekeeping contingents of the regional MISCA force from Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of the Congo arrived on the scene and dismounted. But the looters were undeterred.
Moments later, MISCA units from Chad did not hesitate to fire off a few flurries as they drove by, drawing a deluge of insults from the looters.
Many Christians accuse their northern neighbour Chad of pulling the strings behind Seleka. Its leader-turned-president, Michel Djotodia, launched his rebellion from the border exactly a year ago.
At the mere sight of a Chadian vehicle, the mob screamed abuse in French and the local Sango language: "Chadians out" and "Traitors, cowards, dogs".
Chadian troops occasionally stopped to disperse the crowds and help with the evacuation of the sizeable Chadian community in Bangui, loading refrigerators and other goods on the back of their pick-ups.
An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Chadians live in the Central African Republic and thousands of others from northern Muslim communities are labelled Chadians by the population.
At a nearby crossroads, a Koran fell off the back of a Chadian vehicle whisking evacuees away, to jeers from the crowd.
"We don't want them in the country any longer, they are traitors," said Jennifer Mowene.
Eloi, a student standing close by, agreed: "The Malians and Senegalese can stay but the Muslim Chadians must leave."
The cursing became more ominous as the crowd grew larger: "They should be killed," said some voices.
France launched Operation Sangaris last week after a day of attacks mainly targeting Muslims left nearly 400 people dead in Bangui, according to the French government.
Paris and Washington had warned last month that the Central African crisis had several ingredients of a genocide in the making.
One resident argued that looting businesses owned by Muslims was only fair.
"It's natural. The Seleka killed people and they were helping them... It's justice, it's retaliation," he said.
© 2013 AFP