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Violence persists in C. African Republic, where Hollande due

Source: Reuters - Tue, 10 Dec 2013 05:22 PM
Author: Reuters
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A boy squats inside a burnt out car in Bangui, Central African Republic, December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun
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* French mission suffers first deaths since deployment began

* Violence targeted Muslims overnight and on Tuesday

* French president due to visit after Mandela memorial 

By Emmanuel Braun

BANGUI, Dec 10 (Reuters) - Crowds attacked a mosque, looted houses and torched cars in Central African Republic's capital on Tuesday, hours before French President Francois Hollande was due to visit.

Two French soldiers were killed overnight in an attack by gunmen in the capital, France's first casualties in an operation to restore stability in its former colony, which is racked by fighting between Muslims and Christians.

Major gunbattes have ended with the French deployment but French troops have traded gunfire with gunmen in the capital, where religious tension is simmering.

Several lynchings were reported by residents overnight, adding to the toll of 465 been killed since Thursday.

The country has been gripped by chaos since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in March. Months of looting, raping and killing since has brought reprisals by Christian militias and allies of ousted President Francois Bozize.

Michel Djotodia, rebel leader-turned interim president, has largely lost control of his loose band of fighters, which includes many gunmen from Sudan and Chad.

Christians fled reprisals by Seleka gunmen following a failed offensive on Bangui last week but the French move to disarm all fighters has subsequently weakened Seleka's influence in the capital, leading to counter-attacks.

In the Fouh neighbourhood on Tuesday, a Reuters correspondent saw civilians armed with wooden clubs and machetes attack a mosque and nearby houses.

"We found arms in their mosque. We don't want to see Djotodia and his Muslims here any more," said one man at the scene, who wielded a large knife and refused to give his name.

At least six people were lynched overnight, mainly during violence targeting Muslims, according to residents in Benz-vi and Miskine, Bangui neighbourhoods.

"Three of those stoned to death were Seleka fighters who had been disarmed and a fourth killed was a Muslim whose relatives were part of Seleka," said Hilaire Ouakanga, a resident of Benz-vi.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said about 100,000 people had fled their homes in Bangui in the past few days, bringing to more than half a million the number of displaced countrywide since the crisis began a year ago.

The French presence on Bangui's streets was lighter than on Monday, when disarmament operations were launched.

The 1,600-strong French force has exchanged gunfire with gunmen several times since Monday when it began an operation to disarm rival Muslim and Christian fighters, but the deaths overnight were the first confirmed casualties.

PRESIDENT IN TOWN

The two French soldiers, marine paratroopers from the 8th Regiment based in Castres, died after coming under attack at close range from five or six unidentified lightly-armed men, the army said.

According to Celestin Christ Leon, a spokesman for the African peacekeeping force, a Seleka commander was harassing people, who called the French for help.

"They came and tried to disarm the Seleka but gunfire erupted," he said.

Hollande rushed French troops to the country last Thursday immediately after the U.N. Security Council authorised France to use lethal force to help the African peacekeepers.

Hollande is due to stop in Bangui on his way back from a memorial service for the late Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

While there, Hollande is due to meet Djotodia, French and African peacekeepers and religious leaders. Hollande criticised Djotodia for not doing enough to stem the violence.

French soldiers have also been deployed to other towns across the country, where a 2,500-strong regional African peacekeeping force has struggled to stamp its authority.

After the deaths, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the current French troop levels were sufficient to stabilise the country, which is roughly the size of France.

Central African Republic is rich in diamonds, gold and uranium but despite such resources, most people remain poor. The country has seen little stability in five decades and France has intervened more times since independence in 1960 than in any of its former colonies.

It also lies at a crossroads of conflict in the heart of Africa, with Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia to the east, the Islamist threat in the Sahel region to the northwest and the revolts of the Great Lakes to the southeast. (Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Marine Pennetier and John Irish in Paris, Paul-Marin Ngoupana in Bangui and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by David Lewis,; Editing by Emma Farge and Angus MacSwan)

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