French tanks deployed at Bangui airport
December 26, 2013 - 10:40:28 am
BANGUI: Around a dozen French tanks were deployed yesterday at Bangui’s airport as intense gunfire in adjoining neighbourhoods sowed panic among residents.
The tanks took positions at the entrance to the airport, where French and African peacekeepers are based, after automatic weapons fire and explosions shook several parts of the city.
Tens of thousands of people have been sheltering in precarious conditions on the airport grounds since sectarian bloodletting erupted early this month in the former French colony, claiming hundreds of lives.
Automatic weapons fire, much of it from heavy machine guns, was heard but apparently not directed at the airport. It was especially intense in the nearby PK12 area.
Hundreds of panicked residents could be seen fleeing the area on foot towards central Bangui.
In chaotic scenes, others sought to join the displaced people already at the airport, which was already secured by French soldiers in combat positions behind sandbags before the tanks deployed. Some residents accused former rebels backing Muslim interim president Michel Djotodia of mounting attacks, while others named Christian vigilantes as the aggressors.
Although Djotodia officially disbanded his Seleka rebels after seizing power in a March coup, some of its members went rogue, leading to months of killing, rape and pillaging — and prompting some majority Christians to form vigilante groups.
Bangui was virtually deserted yesterday because of regular outbursts of gunfire in other areas throughout the day.
Peacekeeping troops were also absent from the streets, with only one helicopter, probably French, circling above. Earlier yesterday, a spokesman for the African peacekeeping force MISCA said its Chadian troops would be redeployed out of the capital amid charges they were siding with a former rebel group.
“The whole Chadian contingent will be sent to secure the north in the next few days,” MISCA spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ndong Toutoune said. The spokesman did not elaborate on how or exactly where the Chadian troops would redeploy in the country that has for decades been prone to coups, rebellions and mutinies.
Later, several Chadian MISCA tanks and jeeps could be seen leaving the airport and heading towards the city centre.
The Chadians, mainly because they are Muslim, face accusations by many in Bangui of complicity with the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels who overthrew president Francois Bozize in March in the predominantly Christian country.