Thousands flee as death toll rises
Christian civilians fled by the thousands to the airport guarded by French forces in the Central African Republic's capital Bangui as the mostly Muslim armed fighters who have ruled the country since March hunted door-to-door for their enemies and the death toll from inter-communal violence increased to 280 people.
Bodies lay decomposing along the roads in a capital too dangerous for many to collect the corpses. Thursday's clashes marked the worst unrest in Bangui in nine months and raised fears that waves of retaliatory attacks could soon follow.
"They are slaughtering us like chickens," said Appolinaire Donoboy, a Christian whose family remained in hiding.
France had pledged to increase its presence in its former colony well before Christian militias attacked the capital at dawn on Thursday. The arrival of additional French troops and equipment came as the capital teetered on the brink of total anarchy and represented the greatest hope for many Central Africans.
About 1,000 French forces were expected to be on the ground by Friday evening, a French defence official said.
As night fell across the near anarchic capital, Christians fearing retaliatory attacks by the mostly Muslim ex-rebels crowded as close to the runway as possible, laying out their woven mats in front of a barbed wire coiled fence. National radio announced that at least 280 people had died, citing figures from local Red Cross officials.
The US state department said it was "deeply concerned" by the violence and praised France's quick intervention.
France signalled its amped up presence in its former colony on Friday by sending out armoured vehicles to patrol the streets. A French fighter jet made several flyovers, roaring through the sky over an otherwise lifeless capital as civilians cowered at home. Britain also flew in a C-17 plane on Friday loaded with equipment to help with France's intervention.
As many as 250 French troops are carrying out permanent patrols in Bangui, and "we didn't notice any direct clashes between armed groups today", said French military spokesman Col Gilles Jaron in Paris.
On Thursday, however, 10 armed attackers in a pick-up truck fired on a French position at the airport, including with a rocket-propelled grenade whose charge did not detonate. French forces returned fire, killing four attackers and wounding six, Mr Jaron said.
A planned vote on a UN Security Council resolution on Thursday allowed France to proceed with its mission. It coincided with the worst violence to hit the capital since March when the mostly Muslim rebels known as Seleka overthrew the president of a decade.
On Thursday, Christian militias believed to be loyal to ousted leader Francois Bozize attacked the city, and hours of gunbattles ensued. The conflict in one of Africa's poorest countries has gathered little sustained international attention since the government overthrow in March, and the dramatic developments were overshadowed on Friday by global mourning for South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, who died at the age of 95.
"Thanks to France and the United Nations who want to save the Central Africans, soon the Seleka attacks on civilians will stop. We have had enough of Seleka killing, raping and stealing," said Abel Nguerefara, who lives on the outskirts of Bangui.
Streets in the city were empty on Friday except for military vehicles and the trucks favoured by the rebel forces who now claim control of the government. Nine unclaimed bodies lay sprawled in front of the parliament building alone - local Red Cross workers did not dare retrieve them, or other bodies that were left to decay outside.
Despite the cheers that went up when a jet engine roared overhead, France insisted it was going only reluctantly into Central African Republic and with the limited aim of doubling its presence in the country to 1,200 troops.
Still, it remains an open question how France can achieve even its limited goals in the six months allotted to the mission.
"There's a big gap between the vision France has of itself as a global power and as a power that can intervene," said Aline Leboeuf, a security and development specialist at the French Institute for International Relations.
The real question, she added, is: "Can you intervene in the right way and when do you leave?"
Rebel leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia appealed for calm, even as his residence and that of the prime minister were looted and vandalised by the fighters on Thursday. He announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the hope of preventing retaliatory violence against Christians from Muslims.
In a speech broadcast on Thursday in the Sango language and a television interview in French, Mr Djotodia called on people to realise that French forces were not in the Central African Republic to take sides in an increasingly sectarian conflict.
Mr Djotodia, who is Muslim, unified rebel groups in the country's mostly Muslim north, where resentment of the federal government and a sense of disenfranchisement has been rife for years. Yet once those rebels were unleashed upon the capital, he wielded very little control over the mix of bush fighters, child soldiers and foreign mercenaries he had recruited.
Supporters of the ousted president formed self-defence militias such as those behind Thursday's attack, which came hours before the UN Security Council voted to authorise the French deployment.
"We're appreciative of France, but we know that 50 years after our independences, France is again required to come in as a fireman to save us - it's not right," said Alpha Conde, president of Guinea. "It's a humiliation for Africa that 50 years afterwards, we are not at all able to manage our problems ourselves."
France's military, which controls Bangui airport, said about 2,000 Central Africans took refuge there on Thursday, most if not all of them Christian. The crowd swelled on Friday.
Yves Wayina, 26, fled with his wife and six children.
"France must come and rapidly deploy and do everything possible to save us," he told the AP on Friday.
He is not sure whether he can go back and live among Muslims. Too much has happened. Too many attacks by the Seleka, which include foreign mercenaries among their ranks.
"We are angry," he said through the fence keeping civilians away from the airport runway. "The Muslims should go back where they came from."