Fighting over CAR diamonds kills at least 21

BANGUI, Sept. 19 Mon Sep 19, 2011 1:44pm EDT

BANGUI, Sept. 19 (Reuters) - At least 21 people have been killed in running gun clashes between two former rebel groups seeking control of a diamond-mining area in Central African Republic, sources told Reuters on Monday.

The fighting, which began early last week between members of the former rebel groups UFDR and CPJP in the town of Bria 600 km (360 miles) from the capital Bangui, risks escalating into a broader tribal conflict with reports of fighters going house-to-house hunting ethnic rivals.

"This is all about a diamond mine located inside an area controlled by the UFDR, but which is now occupied by elements of the CPJP," Oumar Rodongo, who works for the mayor's office in Bria, told Reuters by telephone.

He said 21 people had been killed since the fighting broke out early last week, and many more had been wounded.

Residents said there were bodies by the roadsides in the Bornou neighborhood of Bria, where ethnic Goula and Rounga live side by side. The UFDR is made up mostly of Goula, while the CPJP is mostly Rounga.

"Many dozens of people have left the town for the bush because (ethnic) Goula are going from house-to-house looking for Rounga men, who they beat without hesitation," Saleh Abedine, a trader in the town said.

Both former rebel groups have signed ceasefire agreements with the government after years of insurgency, but they remain armed.

"(The) CPJP has left its area in Bamingui Bangouran to come here and exploit the diamond mines. We can't let this happen," UFDR spokesman Zakaria Damane told Reuters by telephone, confirming the fighting.

Residents said the clashes had intensified in recent days, with nine people killed on Sunday alone.

"There are bodies in the undergrowth around the Bornou area and many people have been admitted to the Bria hospital with injuries," said Joseph Ngouba, a student in Bria.

Instability in landlocked CAR, roughly the size of France, has discouraged major investment in its gold, uranium and diamond deposits.

President Francois Bozize took power in a 2003 coup and won a new mandate in January elections, the results of which were dismissed by opponents as fraudulent. (Writing by Richard Valdmanis)