BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Heavy gunfire erupted in Central African Republic's anarchic capital Friday as night fell, with civilians taking cover behind the skeletons of cars as bullets flew overhead. Rwandan peacekeepers backed by French forces later came to the scene and began firing their weapons.
The violence marks the latest unrest to shake this lawless country in the heart of Africa, where thousands of French and African peacekeepers have been trying to calm a political crisis that has ignited unprecedented ti-for-tat killings by armed Christian and Muslim movements.
Armed members of a Christian militia were spotted moving in to the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Miskine late Friday to attacks positions held there by the Muslim fighters, according to Associated Press journalists at the scene. The fierce fighting took place just 100 meters (yards) from Place de la Reconciliation, marked by a white dove statue.
Rwandan peacekeepers — who are part of a 4,600-member strong African force trying to stabilize the beleaguered country — soon arrived on the scene and opened fire, sending people in the streets fleeing for cover into ditches and homes.
Gunfire broke out again shortly thereafter from a base used by the Muslim fighters about 300 meters (yards) away. Rwandan soldiers on foot were soon joined by another Rwandan unit aboard trucks and an armored personnel carrier. French forces then arrived as night fell, and heavy firing again erupted.
More than 1,000 people died during several days of sectarian fighting sparked by an attempted coup by Christian fighters in December, and U.N. officials have warned the lingering anarchy could escalate into genocide. Hundreds more have been slain in recent weeks by marauding gangs wielding machetes, clubs and other weapons.
Earlier Friday, Christian militiamen had killed a prominent Muslim former government minister who supported last year's rebellion, and Amnesty International reported that more than 50 Muslims had been killed in two attacks earlier this month in villages northwest of Bangui.
Dr. Joseph Kalite, a former health minister who had supported coup leader Michel Djotodia, was assassinated on Friday, according to El-Hadj Wananga Kabara, an official at the Central Mosque in Bangui. Witnesses said Kalite died from machete wounds after his car was attacked by Christian fighters.
News of Kalite's death sent waves of fresh fear through Bangui's Muslim community and prompted several religious authorities to condemn international peacekeeping forces for failing to sufficiently protect Muslims.
"The imams announce that, starting today, they will let their followers decide themselves which reactions they deem most appropriate to this new provocation," said Ahmadou Tidjani Moussa Naibi, the imam at Bangui's Central Mosque.
The mostly Muslim rebels who overthrew the government in March 2013 became deeply despised by the Christian majority because of the killings and other atrocities they committed. For nearly 10 months the rebels known as Seleka targeted and tortured civilians, in some cases tying them together and throwing them off bridges to drown.
In response, Christian fighters have lynched scores of Muslims in the streets of Bangui, sometimes stoning victims to death and then mutilating their bodies. Muslim civilians, who have fled by the tens of thousands, insist they are not to blame for the rebellion aided by foreign fighters from Chad and Sudan. Their leader, Djotodia, stepped aside two weeks ago, and interim President Catherine Samba-Panza is now tasked with organizing elections later this year.
Some 4,600 African peacekeepers are in Central African Republic, but 3,200 of them remain inside the capital. France also has sent 1,600 troops though few have reached the hot spots farther north.
Amnesty International called for the peacekeepers to deploy more robustly in the countryside to prevent revenge attacks.
"The Christian community has suffered enormously over the past year," said Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International's senior crisis adviser in Bangui. "The desire for revenge is palpable in CAR. Given how predictable such killings are, more robust peacekeeping steps should be taken to prevent them."
The London-based organization said that in one of the attacks on Jan. 14, Christian militiamen stopped a truck that included Muslims fleeing the country and demanded they get out of the vehicle.
One mother managed to save her 7-month-old baby's life by handing the child to a Christian woman beside her, whispering her family's name before exiting the vehicle to face death, Amnesty International said. The infant was later reunited with relatives. The mother was among eight killed by the Christian fighters.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Hippolyte Marboua in Bangui, Central African Republic contributed to this report.
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