BANGUI At least 13 people were killed when Christian militia forces attacked a town held by Muslim Seleka rebels in a rural area of Central African Republic, residents said on Thursday.
The clashes in Dekoa took place on Tuesday two days before an expected U.N. Security Council vote to create a nearly 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force which will take over from African troops from mid-September.
An 800-strong European Union force is also due to start deploying in the first week of May, subject to airlift capabilities, a force spokesman said.
Residents said the fighting in Dekoa, 300 km (190 miles) north of the capital Bangui, raged for hours when the 'anti-balaka' militia attacked Seleka positions in the early hours of the morning.
Seleka forces, supported by reinforcements from the town of Kaga-Bangoro 75 km (50 miles) to the north, drove back the militia attacks. With neither French nor African peacekeepers stationed in Dekoa, dozens of residents fled the fighting into the bush, according to the curee of the parish church.
"They were heavily armed. We pushed them back," a Seleka commander known as Colonel Ali said by telephone from the town.
Red Cross workers said they had buried eight civilians in Dekoa following the fighting. Residents said the death toll was at least 13 but many wounded had fled into the bush.
Killings have continued between the majority Christian population and increasingly isolated Muslim communities in the landlocked former French colony despite the presence of 2,000 French peacekeepers as well as 6,000 African Union forces, mostly deployed in Bangui and towns.
Two French soldiers were wounded in the legs on Wednesday in the capital when a man threw a grenade at them after he had been asked to disarm.
An interim government headed by Alexandre-Ferdinand has struggled to control the intercommunal violence, which has killed more than 2,000 people since December.
There are concerns about a security vacuum in the coming months following Chad's decision last week to withdraw its 850 troops due to controversy over a series of violent incidents involving its peacekeepers.
Some headquarters staff for the EU force arrived in Bangui on Saturday, to handle logistical preparations, liaison and reconnaissance.
The country, one of Africa's poorest despite reserves of gold and diamonds, was plunged into chaos when the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in March 2013.
Christian militias, known as "anti-balaka," sprang up to ostensibly protect the Christian population after Seleka took to looting and killing but they now stand accused of human rights abuses as well.
(Reporting by Crispin Dembassa-Kette and Hubert-Mary Djamany, Writing by Daniel Flynn, Editing by Angus MacSwan)