Troops of the multinational African force FOMAC take control of a street in the Combattant neighbourhood of Bangui.
BANGUI: Crowds attacked a mosque, looted houses and torched cars in Central African Republic’s capital yesterday, hours before French President Francois Hollande was due to visit.
Two French soldiers were killed overnight in an attack by gunmen in the capital, France’s first casualties in an operation to restore stability in its former colony, which is racked by fighting between Muslims and Christians.
Major gun battes have ended with the French deployment but French troops have traded gunfire with gunmen in the capital, where religious tension is simmering.
Several lynchings were reported by residents overnight, adding to the toll of 465 been killed since Thursday.
The country has been gripped by chaos since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in March. Months of looting, raping and killing since has brought reprisals by Christian militias and allies of ousted President Francois Bozize.
Michel Djotodia, rebel leader-turned interim president, has largely lost control of his loose band of fighters, which includes many gunmen from Sudan and Chad.
Christians fled reprisals by Seleka gunmen following a failed offensive on Bangui last week but the French move to disarm all fighters has subsequently weakened Seleka’s influence in the capital, leading to counterattacks.
In the Fouh neighbourhood yesterday, a correspondent saw civilians armed with wooden clubs and machetes attack a mosque and nearby houses.
“We found arms in their mosque. We don’t want to see Djotodia and his Muslims here any more,” said one man at the scene, who wielded a large knife and refused to give his name.
At least six people were lynched overnight, mainly during violence targeting Muslims, according to residents in Benz-vi and Miskine, Bangui neighbourhoods.
“Three of those stoned to death were Seleka fighters who had been disarmed and a fourth killed was a Muslim whose relatives were part of Seleka,” said Hilaire Ouakanga, a resident of Benz-vi.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR said about 100,000 people had fled their homes in Bangui in the past few days, bringing to more than half a million the number of displaced countrywide since the crisis began a year ago.
The French presence on Bangui’s streets was lighter than on Monday, when disarmament operations were launched.
The 1,600-strong French force has exchanged gunfire with gunmen several times since Monday when it began an operation to disarm rival Muslim and Christian fighters, but the deaths overnight were the first confirmed casualties.
The two French soldiers, marine paratroopers from the 8th Regiment based in Castres, died after coming under attack at close range from five or six unidentified lightly-armed men, the army said.