BANGUI Heavy arms fire and gunshots rang out across the capital of the Central African Republic on Friday as Christian militia forces attacked Muslim neighbourhoods, sending residents fleeing.
A spokesman for the 3,700-strong African Union peacekeeping force, MISCA, said the "anti-balaka" fighters had attacked the PK 5 and Fatima neighbourhoods, home to the city's minority Muslim population.
An attack on Bangui by Christian militias in early December sparked a wave of bloody reprisals by the Muslim Seleka fighters who seized power in March. Hundreds of people were killed in the violence, prompting France to send peacekeeping troops to its former colony.
Guy-Simplice Kodegue, a spokesman for the interim government, said the Christian militia forces had tried to reach the centre of the riverside capital.
All economic and social activity had stopped as panicked residents fled, he told Reuters.
The deployment of 1,600 French troops to Bangui helped to restore a semblance of calm in recent days, but the clashes were a reminder of the tension that erupted into months of massacres, rapes and looting following Seleka's seizure of power.
The United Nations estimates more than 200,000 people in Bangui - a quarter of the population - have been displaced by the fighting. The MISCA spokesman said a Chadian peacekeeper had died of his wounds after an attack on a MISCA patrol on Thursday.
On Friday, three Seleka fighters were shot dead in central Bangui after one pulled out a grenade at a checkpoint when MISCA soldiers tried to disarm them. A Congolese MISCA soldier was injured in the firefight, an officer said.
MISCA says it has disarmed several thousand Seleka fighters and returned them to barracks. France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TV5 Monde on Friday that French forces were disarming both sides, anti-balaka and Seleka, indiscriminately.
FRANCE SEEKS EUROPEAN SUPPORT
Speaking in Brussels, French President Francois Hollande repeated calls for other European nations to help restore order in the landlocked African nation of 4.6 million people.
"France is undertaking the most dangerous part of the mission, but we hope that there will be a European presence at our side," he said.
Under the terms of a U.N. resolution passed on December 5, France hopes to hand over responsibility to security to the MISCA forces in six months. The African Union force is due to reach 6,000 troops by the end of January.
"We could even foresee that force going up to 9,000," said Hollande, who hosted a summit in Paris this month to convince African nations to send more forces.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said on her Twitter feed Rwanda was preparing to send troops, after the African Union asked it to participate.
Rwanda has been a strong supporter of a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, where the religious and ethnic violence has stirred memories of Rwanda's own 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were killed.
The World Food Programme flew in an emergency shipment of food and supplies to Bangui on Thursday evening, after temporarily halting flights because of violence in the capital.
With more than 700,000 people displaced by the fighting in Central African Republic, WFP has warned of an impending food crisis. It said on Friday it was preparing to feed more than a million people there next year.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Emmanuel Jarry in Brussels; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Andrew Roche)