A French military armoured vehicle drives past a child in
Bangui. REUTERS/Herve Serefio
Relative calm has returned to the Central African
Republic after three days of heavy fighting between Christians
and Muslims, with France saying many thousands rather than
hundreds would have died had its troops not intervened.
Nevertheless, residents of the capital Bangui reported
sporadic gunfire from some neighbourhoods and a human rights
campaigner said members of Seleka - a mainly Muslim rebel
group that seized power in March and has been fighting
Christian militias - were still operating in the city.
The morgue at Bangui's Hopital Communautaire was full, a
Reuters correspondent saw, with bodies piled up there and in
the hospital corridors.
France is deploying 1,600 troops to its former colony after
the U.N. Security Council authorised it on Thursday to use
force to help African peacekeepers struggling to restore
order. The African Union force is also due to be increased to
6,000 from 3,500.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the death toll
would have been much higher without the deployment. "Calm has
returned in Bangui, even if acts of violence are still being
committed," he told the France 3 TV channel. "Had we not
intervened, the 394 deaths would have been 5,000 or 10,000."
Central African Republic has slid into chaos as interim
president Michel Djotodia struggled to control his loose band
of Seleka fighters, who have attacked members of the
Christian majority and prompted them to organise the defence
Despite a government order for the gunmen to return to their
barracks, another Reuters reporter saw soldiers in camouflage
fatigues driving around in pickup trucks near the
presidential palace and in clear view of French patrols.
"Even as the mourning begins, Seleka has not been confined.
They are still operating in the city," said Joseph Bindoumi,
president of the Central African League for the Defence of
The country, rich in gold, diamonds and uranium, has seen
little but conflict and political instability since
independence from France in 1960. The Red Cross has reported
394 dead since the latest wave of killings began on Dec. 5
and said it was working to recover the remaining bodies on
Pastor Antoine Mbao Bogo, who is Red Cross president in the
country, told Reuters that his group planned to prepare two
grave sites - one for Christians and one for Muslims.
Residents of both faiths have huddled in churches for
protection from the armed groups.
Thousands attended a Sunday morning service at St. Paul's
church in Bangui. Makeshift beds inside the church were
removed temporarily to allow space for prayer benches, but
still people spilled into the courtyard.
"We need today to promote inter-religious dialogue to
transform the dynamic of violence and war into a dynamic of
peace and solidarity," Dieudonne Nzapalainga, Archbishop of
Bangui, said at the service.
The church is struggling to provide funerals for its
congregation, said Bishop Nestor Aziagba, who assisted at
Sunday's service. "Men can't leave their homes and women are
taking the risk of taking the bodies and digging their own
holes to bury them," he told Reuters.
President Djotodia announced three days of national mourning
on state radio on Saturday.
French helicopters flew low over Bangui while soldiers
patrolled both the capital and Bossangoa, about 300 km (180
miles) to the north.
Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch emergency director, said
that the first French helicopter had arrived in Bossangoa.
"Every French move reassures the population," he said on his
Following the outbreak of violence, France wants elections
brought forward to next year, putting an end to the interim
period originally scheduled to run into 2015.
Djotodia, who blames the recent attacks on gunmen loyal to
his ousted predecessor Francois Bozize, acknowledged on
Sunday that he had received the request and said it was under
The United Nations has estimated that as many as 6,000 child
soldiers have been drawn into the latest violence and aid
workers say that many of the victims have been children.
Souleymane Diabate, of children's rights organisation UNICEF,
said that many children were being brought to hospitals with
wounds from bullets and crude weapons. "We are living through
a major crisis and children haven't been spared," he said.