French troops backed by a helicopter yesterday traded fire with suspected former rebels in a neighborhood rife with sectarian tensions, within hours of the arrival of France’s military chief in Bangui.
The violence that has left the Central African Republic (CAR) verging on anarchy showed few signs of abating in the Miskine neighborhood, where a band of about a dozen men with machetes faced off against an equally large group of Christian youths.
Anger boiled over in the neighborhood after the overnight death of a Christian taxi driver at the hands of the mostly Muslim former rebels.
The impoverished country has descended into chaos since March, when rebel groups overthrew the government. French forces trying to disarm Bangui face backlash from residents terrified to give up weapons they could use to defend themselves.
“They are looting our shops and homes. We have the right to intervene and protect ourselves,” said Hassan Annour, a 36-year-old Muslim.
Early yesterday, French forces backed by a helicopter traded fire with suspected former rebels, called Seleka, holed up in the neighborhood.
People on both sides have carried out retaliatory violence across the Central African Republic, an overwhelmingly Christian country which until March had seen little sectarian strife.
France is deploying 1,600 soldiers to bolster regional African peacekeepers, trying to stabilize the country after more than 500 people died last week in religious fighting. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arrived yesterday to meet with troops and commanders, the French military said in Paris.
On Thursday, African peacekeepers fired into the air to keep a mob from killing a group of Muslims who had sought refuge in a church compound.