BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — France unexpectedly raised its troop deployment in Central African Republic by hundreds of soldiers on Saturday, as Christians fearing reprisal attacks sought refuge from Muslim former rebels who control the country in wake of massacres in the capital. At least 280 people have been killed in recent days — the worst violence in the lawless country in months.
Concluding an aptly-timed and long-planned conference on African security in Paris, French President Francois Hollande said his nation — armed with a muscular new U.N. mandate — was raising its deployment to 1,600 on Saturday, 400 more than initially planned. French troops were patrolling the capital, Bangui, and fanning out into the back country.
Former colonizer France has dispatched forces to help stabilize a crisis that its foreign minister has said now verges on genocide. The local Red Cross says it has gathered more than 280 bodies in recent days, although the perilous security had made it impossible to access some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods.
Bloodshed was rife on Thursday, hours before a U.N. vote paved the way for a greater French and African presence to be deployed.
On Saturday, some Bangui residents ventured outside for the first in time in days only to bury their dead. French armored personnel carriers and troops from the regional African peacekeeping mission roared at high speed down Bangui's roads, as families carrying palm fronds pushed coffins in carts on the roads' shoulders. In a sign of the mounting tensions, others walking briskly on the streets carried bow-and-arrows and machetes.
In a decree read on national radio by a spokesman, President Michel Djotodia ordered the national army — which now includes ex-Seleka rebels blamed for human rights abuses — to remain off the streets being patrolled by French and regional forces. Spokesman Guy Simplice Kodegue said those who violated the order would be punished.
Aid workers returned to the streets to collect bloated bodies that had laid uncollected in the heat since Thursday, when Christian fighters known as the anti-balaka who oppose the country's ruler descended on the capital in a coordinated attack on several mostly Muslim neighborhoods.
Residents of Christian neighborhoods said ex-Seleka rebels later carried out reprisal attacks, going house-to-house in search of alleged combatants and firing at civilians who strayed into the wrong part of town.
Zumbeti Thierry Tresor, 23, was among those slain after he tried to cross through another Bangui neighborhood to visit family members. Seleka fighters shot him in the neck and stomach, his friends said. On Saturday, neighbors hiked the rocky path to his one-room home where his covered body lay on the floor underneath neatly hung music posters.
Outside the front door, his wife wailed hysterically, gripping their 3-year-old bewildered daughter in her lap as neighbors crowded around her. Alongside their house, a team of a dozen men with sticks and shovels dug Tresor's grave under the shade of a tree.
"We want the French army to come and protect us," said Tresor's friend, Francois Yayi. "We have no police to call. The Seleka will kill us all."
He and his friends began counting on their fingers the number of neighbors slain amid the latest spasm of bloodshed. They said at least 10 have died since Thursday.
As families mourned their dead, others fled by the thousands to the few known safe places in the capital — the airport guarded by French troops and the grounds of a Catholic center run by the Salesians of Don Bosco. Some 3,000 people had fled to the complex on Thursday when the fighting began and that number swelled to 12,000 by Saturday.
"We have no water, no food, no medicine — we have nothing," said Pierre Claver Agbetiafan, looking around the center where he works.
Most of the displaced in Central African Republic's capital are Christian since the ex-Seleka rebels have not targeted Muslim neighborhoods. However, anger over the Seleka attacks has prompted vicious reprisals on Muslim civilians in other parts of the country. Nearly a dozen Muslim women and children were slain less than a week ago just outside the capital in an attack blamed on the Christian fighters.
Central African Republic, one of the world's poorest countries, has been wracked for decades by coups and rebellions. In March, the Seleka rebel alliance overthrew the Christian president of a decade. At the time, religious ideology played little role in their power grab. The rebels soon installed their leader Michel Djotodia as president though he exerted little control over forces on the ground.
The rebels are blamed for scores of atrocities since taking power, tying civilians together and throwing them off bridges to drown and burning entire villages to the ground. Anger over the Seleka abuses translated into a backlash against Muslim civilians, who make up only about 15 percent of the population.
The armed Christian movement that has arisen in response to the Seleka attacks is widely believed to be supported by former members of the national army loyal to ousted President Francois Bozize.
Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.