The Red Cross on Thursday said it had recovered about 40 bodies from the streets of Bangui as the US expressed alarm at the latest eruption of fighting in the Central African Republic.
French troops have beefed up patrols after a bloody Christmas in the strife-torn capital, where more than 1,000 are believed to have been killed in three weeks of conflict between Christians and Muslims.
Five Chadian peacekeepers were also killed in an outbreak of heavy fighting on Wednesday, which sent thousands of panicked residents fleeing for shelter at the airport, where French and African peacekeepers are based.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was “alarmed” by the fighting in recent days and urged the country to move quickly to hold elections.
“The continued sectarian fighting only deepens the country’s wounds and makes reconciliation more difficult,” Kerry said in a statement, adding that the US was “deeply disturbed” by the discovery of 20 bodies in a mass grave in the capital on Thursday.
It was not clear if these figures were included in the death toll given by the Red Cross which said it had recovered 40 bodies since Wednesday.
“About 40 bodies have been recovered for the moment, and first aid has been given to around 30 people wounded,” International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman David Pierre Marquet said in Geneva.
He said another 60 or so bodies were recovered on Monday, a day marked by escalating tensions after African peacekeepers fired into a crowd of protesters.
Marquet said the ICRC did not yet have a complete death toll since a spasm of violence was unleashed in the country.
Amnesty International has said at least 1,000 people died in two days of bloodshed from Dec. 5.
There have been no reliable figures for the number of casualties since.
The circumstances of the Chadian deaths in Bangui on Wednesday were unclear, according to a spokesman for the African Union (AU) force of which they were a part.
“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,” AU spokesman Eloi Yao said.
Top Muslim and Catholic clerics in the Central African Republic pleaded for the UN 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, 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 would “eliminate the sentiment of fear and replace it with hope,” they said.
On Thursday about 600 French peacekeepers were on patrol, according to French Lieutenant Colonel Sebastien Pelissier, focused on the restive neighborhoods of Gobongo, near the airport, and Pabongo in the southern part of the city.
The majority Christian country has been wracked by escalating violence since a March coup by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels who 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.
The violence is estimated to have displaced more than 700,000 people across the country, with over a quarter of those affected in Bangui.
However, that figure is a conservative estimate, Adrian Edwards of the refugee agency UNHCR said on Thursday.
“Those numbers are rising still. Clearly there is an increase in the people displaced at this time,” he said.
A combined force of 1,600 French troops and 4,000 AU soldiers has been struggling to restore order in the chronically unstable nation since receiving a UN mandate early this month.
The task has been complicated by accusations that soldiers from Chad, which is mainly Muslim and which has been traditionally influential in its neighbor’s affairs, have been siding with the 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 fired on a stone-throwing crowd of mostly Christian protesters, killing one man and wounding about 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.