French army kills fighters in C. Africa operation
French troops have killed several armed fighters in the Central African Republic as Paris on Friday rolled out a UN-backed operation to restore security after a bloodbath that left dozens of bodies strewn across the capital.
The French army said its soldiers killed the armed men Thursday in a dawn clash near the airport of the capital Bangui.
"An armed pick-up opened fire three times in the direction of civilians and French troops. After the third time, we retaliated and destroyed the vehicle," a spokesman for the French general staff said.
On Friday, warplanes overflew Bangui, a day after at least 140 civilians were killed in the capital -- many clubbed or hacked to death in violence that erupted amid international warnings that the country risked sectarian massacres.
The Central African Republic (CAR) has descended into chaos since a motley coalition of rebel fighters known as Seleka overthrew the government in March and installed their own chief, Michel Djotodia, as president -- the first Muslim leader of the majority Christian country.
It was the latest in a string of rebellions and coups in the impoverished, strife-torn country, where life expectancy is 49 years and the average income is less than $2 a day.
Reports from UN staff on the ground indicate the situation remains "very tense" in Bangui, with ongoing sectarian violence, said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for UN refugee agency UNHCR.
"We are hearing worrying reports of sectarian and revenge attacks between neighbours throughout Bangui," Edwards told journalists in Geneva.
He said "a growing number of people" were fleeing over the southern border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, with close to 700 arriving on Thursday alone.
It has not yet been possible to establish a definitive death toll from the latest violence, which erupted Wednesday night, but the UNHCR spokesman said that according to UN and media reports, at least 140 civilians had been killed.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported 92 people dead and 155 wounded over two days at one hospital alone.
After a night of brutal Christian-Muslim fighting Wednesday and early Thursday, AFP reporters in Bangui counted 54 corpses in a mosque and another 25 bodies in surrounding streets.
A spokesman for UN human rights agency OHCHR, Rupert Colville, said the violence was allegedly started by self-defence militias formed to protect civilians from attacks by the Seleka ex-rebels.
"In retaliation, Muslim civilians were allegedly given weapons by the ex-Seleka forces and retaliatory attacks between Christians and Muslim communities were reported in numerous locations in the capital. Ex-Seleka soldiers reportedly executed 10 people in a hospital," he said in Geneva.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the goal of the French military mission, which got the unanimous blessing of the 15-member UN Security Council on Thursday, was to provide "a minimum of security to allow for a humanitarian intervention to be put in place".
The operation in the former French colony will include "securing roads and main routes to allow people to be able to at least go to the hospital," he said.
President Francois Hollande's government has said it expects the operation to last four to six months.
In Paris, French and African leaders opened a mini-summit Friday expected to discuss the crisis.
'Doctors desperate to get to hospitals'
"Bangui is effectively in shutdown," said Christian Mukosa, Amnesty International's CAR expert, who is currently in the city, where Djotodia has extended a curfew by four hours from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am.
"Doctors are telling us that they are desperate to get to the hospitals to reach people in need of life-saving surgery, but they cannot do so, due to the insecurity that has swept the city," Mukosa said in a statement.
France has begun deploying an additional 600 troops, doubling the force it already had in and around the capital and bolstering the African military force MISCA.
Britain has dispatched a C17 transport plane to support the French operation, London said. Germany also offered to help by providing Airbus A310 transport planes to carry troops and equipment to a neighbouring country, a defence ministry spokesman said.
The European Union has unblocked 50 million euros ($68 million) to aid the operation, said EU Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso.
© 2013 AFP