French soldiers arrest ex-Seleka rebels after finding weapons in a house near Bangui’s airport yesterday.
BANGUI: French troops in Central African Republic (CAR) clashed with gunmen in the capital Bangui yesterday as they searched for weapons in an operation to disarm rival Muslim and Christian fighters responsible for hundreds of killings since last week.
Shooting erupted near the airport in the morning after gunmen refused to hand over their weapons, and French forces later came under attack by former rebels in the city centre.
France said it was prepared to use force if fighters rejected calls to disarm or return to barracks.
France boosted its military presence in its former colony to 1,600 troops over the weekend as waves of religious violence swept across the country. At least 459 people have been killed in Bangui alone since Thursday, according to Red Cross officials.
“This is not an easy job, but our soldiers are well prepared,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio.
The order to disarm had been broadcast on local radio in Bangui and “if that is not enough, force is going to be employed.”
Central African Republic has spiralled into chaos since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in March and embarked on months of looting, raping and killing. Seleka’s leader, Michel Djotodia, installed as the country’s interim president, has lost control of his loose band of fighters.
Christian militias and gunmen loyal to ousted president Francois Bozize attacked Bangui on Thursday, the same day the UN Security Council authorised France to use lethal force to help African peacekeepers already struggling to restore order.
In an early test of France’s resolve, its troops traded fire with gunmen near the airport Monday morning. A French army spokesman in Paris called the incident “insignificant”.
“Many armed elements who held positions in Bangui have left their positions to go back to their barracks,” Colonel Gilles Jaron said.
However, French troops again came under attack later in the day in the PK 5 neighbourhood from suspected Seleka fighters.
“It was an attempt to intimidate. We responded with 20mm cannon, then sent in a platoonto carry out clean-up operations,” Captain Guillaume Fresse, spokesman for the French force in Bangui said. It was not immediately known whether there had been casualties in the two incidents. As French forces manned checkpoints and patrolled the streets, pockets of crowd violence erupted in several districts.
In the Castor neighbourhood a crowd attacked a man they accused of being a disarmed Seleka fighter after French soldiers removed weapons from a house there. Reuters