French tanks deploy at Bangui airport

2013-12-25 21:11
French patrol Bangui.

French patrol Bangui.

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Bangui - Around a dozen French tanks deployed on Wednesday at the airport of the Central African Republic's capital as intense gunfire in adjoining neighbourhoods sowed panic among residents.

The tanks took positions at the entrance to Bangui's 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 who spoke to AFP by telephone 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 on Wednesday 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.

Chad troops to leave Bangui

Earlier on Wednesday, a spokesperson 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 spokesperson  Lieutenant Colonel Ndong Toutoune told AFP.

The spokesperson did not elaborate on how or exactly where the Chadian troops would redeploy in the impoverished 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.

Amnesty International says about 1 000 people have been killed since 5 December, mostly by Muslim ex-rebels, but also in Christian reprisal attacks.

The head of the Burundian contingent in the African Misca force told AFP his men were disarming former rebels on Monday when Chadian troops from Misca threw a grenade and opened fire on them, prompting some Burundian elements to return fire, wounding three Chadians.

Christians

The fighting has virtually wiped out Christmas for the country's Christians, though they fit in a Christmas Eve mass at Bangui's red-brick cathedral before a dusk-to-dawn curfew took effect on Tuesday.

"We must speak out freely and say in one voice 'This should never happen again,'" Bangui's much admired Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga said in an emotional sermon as soldiers stood guard.

On Monday, Chadian soldiers had opened fire on hundreds of stone-throwing protesters, mostly Christians, killing one man and wounding around 40 others, three seriously.

Traditionally influential in the Central African Republic, neighbouring Chad is France's main partner in its efforts to re-establish peace in the country. It contributes 850 troops to the 3 700-strong Misca force.

But the growing defiance of Central Africans toward the Chadian contingent is complicating the task of the 1 600 French troops deployed to the country since the beginning of December.

The UN refugee agency says the unrest has uprooted more than 200 000 people from their homes.

Read more on:    central african republic  |  central africa

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