French troops battle Central African Republic rebels

French troops backed by a helicopter traded fire with suspected former rebels today in a neighbourhood rife with sectarian tensions, within hours of the arrival of France’s military chief in the Central African Republic capital.

The violence that has left the country verging on anarchy showed few signs of abating in the Miskine district of Bangui, where a band of about a dozen men with machetes faced off against an equally large group of Christian youths.

Anger boiled over in the area after the overnight death of a Christian taxi driver at the hands of the mostly-Muslim former rebels.

The impoverished country has descended into chaos since March, when rebel groups overthrew the government. French forces trying to disarm Bangui face backlash from residents terrified to give up weapons they could use to defend themselves.

“They are looting our shops and homes. We have the right to intervene and protect ourselves,” said Hassan Annour, a 36-year-old Muslim.

Early today, French forces backed up by a helicopter traded fire with suspected ex-rebels, called Seleka, holed up in the neighbourhood.

People on both sides have carried out retaliatory violence across Central African Republic, an overwhelmingly Christian country which until March had seen little sectarian strife.

France is deploying 1,600 soldiers to bolster regional African peacekeepers, trying to stabilise the country after more than 500 people died last week in religious fighting. Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arrived today to meet troops and commanders, the French military said in Paris.

Yesterday, African peacekeepers fired into the air to keep a mob from killing a group of Muslims who had sought refuge in a church compound. Their rage stems from Seleka attacks on civilians since the rebel coalition ousted the Christian president in a coup that brought President Michel Djotodia to power.

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