• Peacekeepers, dozens of civilians die in C. Africa clashes

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    The death toll from clashes in the Central African Republic’s capital has risen to at least 40, the Red Cross said Thursday, as French troops upped patrols in the city in a bid to stem the violence.

    “Around 40 bodies have been recovered for the moment, and first aid has been given to around 30 people wounded,” International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman David Pierre Marquet said.

    Marquet revised downwards an earlier toll of 60 wounded.

    Five Chadian peacekeepers were also killed in the latest wave of violence in the troubled capital Bangui, hit by three weeks of deadly sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims.

    Heavy arms fire that erupted on Wednesday sent thousands of panicking residents fleeing for shelter at the airport, where French and African peacekeepers are based.

    Around 60 bodies were recovered in Bangui on Monday, the Red Cross said, a day marked by escalating tensions after African peacekeepers fired into a crowd of protesters.

    The circumstances of the Chadian deaths, which occurred on Wednesday in the capital, were unclear, a spokesman for the African Union (AU) force of which they were a part told Agence France-Presse.

    “Yesterday the city was in total chaos and this chaos lasted until the end of the night. Today we are trying to understand what happened,” said Eloi Yao.

    The Chadian contingent of the AU peacekeeping force has been accused of siding with a mostly Muslim former rebel group in the strife-torn majority Christian country.

    Top Muslim and Catholic clerics in the Central African Republic pleaded for the United Nations to “immediately dispatch” extra peacekeepers to help stop the violence, which French and African forces are struggling to contain.

    In an opinion column in France’s Le Monde newspaper, the Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapalainga, and Imam Omar Kobine Layama, said progress by the forces “has been fragile and the troops cannot bear the burden themselves”.

    The arrival of UN blue helmets “will eliminate the sentiment of fear and replace it with hope”, they said.

    The latest clashes prompted the French force to deploy armoured vehicles near the airport. Late Wednesday, the fighting had subsided.

    On Thursday around 600 French peacekeepers were on patrol, according to French Lieutenant Colonel Sebastien Pelissier, focused on the restive neighbourhoods of Gobongo, near to the airport, and Pabongo in the southern part of the city.

    The resource-rich but impoverished country has been wracked by escalating violence since a March coup by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels installed Michel Djotodia as the country’s first Muslim president.

    Although Djotodia disbanded the rebels, some of them went rogue, leading to months of killing, rape and pillaging and prompting Christians to form vigilante groups in response.

    The violence is estimated to have displaced over 700,000 people across the country, with over a quarter of those affected in Bangui.

    But that figure is a rather too conservative estimate, Adrian Edwards of the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, said Thursday.

    “Those numbers are rising still. Clearly there is an increase in the people displaced at this time,” he said.

    Chadians to be redeployed out of capital

    A combined force of 1,600 French troops and 4,000 African Union soldiers has been struggling to restore order in the notoriously unstable nation since receiving a UN mandate in early December.

    The task has been complicated by accusations that soldiers from Chad, which is mainly Muslim and which has been traditionally influential in its neighbour, have been siding with the Muslim Seleka.

    The accusations have been fanned by several incidents, including one on Monday when Burundian troops in the AU force said Chadian soldiers opened fire on them as they were disarming former rebels.

    The same day, Chadian peacekeepers opened fire on a stone-throwing crowd of mostly Christian protesters, killing one man and wounding around 40 more.

    With tensions running high, the AU force on Wednesday said it would redeploy the Chadian contingent out of the capital to the north of the country.

    According to residents reached by telephone, Wednesday’s deadly clashes appear to have involved Christian vigilante groups attacking Chadian troops in the Gobongo neighbourhood.

    The Chadians pushed back the attack with help from Seleka fighters, several residents told Agence France-Presse

    The reports could not be confirmed with the AU force or French peacekeepers.

    The Burundian peacekeepers also came under fire, they and the residents said. AFP

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