BANGUI - Gunfire echoed through the capital of Central African Republic on Thursday in the heaviest clashes there for months, hours before the U.N. was expected to authorise a French mission to curb escalating Muslim-Christian sectarian violence.
Former rebels controlling Bangui said they had come under attack from local militia and fighters loyal to ousted president Francois Bozize. A Reuters witness at one hospital said at least 23 people had been killed since shooting began before dawn. He saw another 64 wounded, including women and children.
Mindful of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when hundreds of thousands were killed as the world looked on, the United States and other Western powers are lobbying for international action to prevent the anarchy in Central African Republic leading to major atrocities against the civilian population.
"There has been gunfire all over town," Amy Martin, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bangui, told Reuters.
The U.N. Security Council is due to vote later on Thursday on dispatching hundreds of French reinforcements to restore order in the country, which has slipped into chaos since mainly Muslim rebels seized power in March, leading to tit-for-tat sectarian violence.
Central African Republic is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium but decades of instability and spillover from conflicts in its larger neighbours have kept it mired in crisis.
Michel Djotodia, leader of the Seleka former rebel alliance, is now the country's interim president but he has struggled to control his loose band of fighters, many of whom are gunmen from neighbouring Chad and Sudan.
Mainly Christian local defence groups, known as "anti-balaka", have sprung up in response to abuses committed in Bangui and up-country by the former rebels.
General Arda Hakouma, a former rebel now head of Djotodia's personal security detail, said "anti-balaka" forces had attacked and fighting was taking place in three parts of the city - PK12, PK9, and the 4th district.
"There are many of them. Some of them are well armed with rifles and rocket launchers. Others are dressed in civilian clothes with machetes," he said.
Helen van der Velden, head of mission for MSF-Holland, who have a team in Bangui's Hopital Communautaire hospital said she was unable to assess the number of people killed as it was impossible venture out.
"But according to our staff in different neighbourhoods, there are numerous bodies in the streets," she said.
A witness at the hospital said soldiers from a regional peacekeeping force already deployed in the country brought in about a dozen wounded. They then left despite the pleas of civilians for them to stay and protect them from marauding fighters. The hospital's staff had fled.
Martin said the clashes appeared to have started around the Boy Rabe neighbourhood, a stronghold of Bozize that has been repeatedly raided by Seleka forces amid reports arms had been distributed to civilians before the former president fell.
There were reports of arms being handed out to civilians in the mainly Muslim PK5 neighbourhood, she added.
Some rights groups have called for a U.N. peacekeeping mission to be set up immediately but African leaders want to see if a beefed-up African force supported by France can contain the violence.
The U.N. vote on whether to increase the French deployment is due at 1500 GMT.
"The situation is very worrying. There are serious risks," said Cameroonian General Martin Tumenta Chomu, who heads the African Union peacekeeping mission, MISCA.
"WE NEED THE FRENCH"
Having previously intervened in CAR's conflicts, Paris initially sought to avoid this one. But the scale of the violence since the rebels swept south has forced France's hand.
"When Seleka entered, there were dead Christians. This time it could be worse ... We need the French. The French have to come quickly," Wilfred Koyamba, a Bangui resident told Reuters.
Another resident said he saw a group of about 40 "anti-balaka" fighters in the Ngaragba neighbourhood, some in military fatigues others in jeans and shorts.
Armed with AK47 assault rifles and rocket launchers, they broke open the prison doors there. One of the fighters told the resident: "Stay at home. Show us the houses of the Muslims."
Some Seleka gunmen had stripped off uniforms to blend into the population, witnesses said.
Several French armoured personnel carriers were seen driving through the streets of the riverside town early on Thursday. Troops and vehicles were deployed outside the French embassy.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he expected the resolution to be adopted unanimously later on Thursday and France would send about troops 1,200 "relatively quickly".
"The objective is to end this humanitarian tragedy, re-establish security and help the democratic transition," Fabius told RMC radio on Thursday morning.
France has had 400 troops in Bangui to control the airport and protect French interests but reinforcements have been dispatched to prepare for the larger force that is due to help the struggling African peacekeeping mission restore order.
In a sign of the spreading violence, earlier this week, the United Nations said armed men killed at least 12 civilians and wounded 30, including children, northwest of Bangui.