* Relgious leaders call for peace and solidarity
* Body count expected to rise above 400
* Many seen struggling to bury dead, morgue full
By Emmanuel Braun and Paul-Marin Ngoupana
BANGUI, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Residents of the Central African Republic gathered in churches to mourn on Sunday after hundreds were killed in violence between Christian and Muslim communities, prompting France to intervene in its former colony.
Residents and aid workers described a period of relative calm on Sunday after three days of fighting but said that sporadic gunfire continued overnight in some neighbourhoods.
Central African Republic has descended into chaos as interim president Michel Djotodia, who seized power in March, has struggled to control his loose band of Muslim fighters, who have attacked members of the Christian majority and prompted them to organise defence militias.
The country, rich in gold, diamonds and uranium, has seen little but conflict and political instability since independence from France in 1960.
The Red Cross has reported 394 dead since the latest wave of killings began on Dec. 5 and said it was working to recover the remaining bodies on Sunday.
Residents of both faiths have huddled in churches for protection from the armed groups.
A Reuters reporter saw thousands of people at a Sunday morning service at St. Paul's church in the riverside capital of Bangui. Makeshift beds inside the church were removed temporarily to allow space for prayer benches, but still people spilled into the courtyard.
"We need today to promote inter-religious dialogue to transform the dynamic of violence and war into a dynamic of peace and solidarity," Dieudonne Nzapalainga, Archbishop of Bangui, said at the service.
The church is struggling to provide funerals for its congregation, said Bishop Nestor Aziagba, who assisted in Sunday's service.
"Men can't leave their homes and women are taking the risk of taking the bodies and digging their own holes to bury them," he told Reuters.
The morgue at Bangui's Hopital Communautaire was full, another Reuters correspondent said. He saw bodies piled up in the morgue and in the hospital corridors.
President Djotodia announced three days of national mourning on state radio on Saturday.
France is deploying 1,600 troops to its former colony after the U.N. Security Council on Thursday authorised it to use force to help African peacekeepers struggling to restore order.
French helicopters flew low above Bangui while soldiers patrolled the streets in both the capital and in Bossangoa, about 300 km north of Bangui.
Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch emergency director, said on his Twitter feed on Sunday that the first French helicopter had arrived in Bossangoa. "Every French move reassures the population," he said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the death toll would have been much higher without intervention.
"Calm has returned in Bangui, even if acts of violence are still being committed," he told French TV channel France 3.
"Had we not intervened, the 394 deaths would have been 5,000 or 10,000," he said.
The United Nations has estimated that as many as 6,000 child soldiers have been drawn into the latest violence and aid workers say that many of the victims have been children.
Souleymane Diabate, of children's rights organisation UNICEF, said that many children were being brought to hospitals with wounds from bullets and crude weapons.
"We are living through a major crisis and children haven't been spared," he said. (Additional reporting by Muriel Boselli in Paris; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by David Goodman)