Bangui: The streets of the capital of the Central African Republic were deserted Tuesday with terrified residents sheltering indoors and tens of thousands fleeing their homes after three days of shooting and bloodshed.
"We fear that the violence we`re seeing in Bangui is a return to the dark days of late 2013 and 2014, when thousands were killed and tens of thousands had to flee their homes," UN refugee agency spokesman Leo Dobbs told reporters.
At least 36 people died in the last three days and 27,400 fled their homes, the United Nations said.
Gunfire was heard in the afternoon in the Combattant neighbourhood next to Bangui`s international airport, where some 20,000 people have taken refuge near French and UN military bases.
Announcing she was cutting short a visit to UN headquarters in New York, the country`s interim president Catherine Samba Panza said in a message broadcast on national radio: "I appeal to you my compatriots for calm. I ask you to return to your homes."
Sources close to the presidency told AFP she was expected back in Bangui late Tuesday.
In Geneva, the UNHCR`s Dobbs said 10,000 of those who fled had taken refuge at the airport, which had already been hosting around 11,000 people.
"There is great difficulty getting to the airport. There are barricades in the streets and there was shooting going on this morning," he said. "The displaced people are reported to be in a state of shock."Residents said members of the feared "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) Christian militia, which sprung up in 2013 to defend against mainly Muslim Seleka fighters, had begun gathering in Bangui on Monday.
"Groups of them, armed with machetes, have taken up positions in the streets of the 8th and 5th districts," one of the few residents to venture out into the streets told AFP.
The fighters were positioned near the city`s PK-5 shopping area, the last bastion of Muslims hounded out of other areas by the Christian militia.
The latest escalation in two years of unrest began in PK-5 when a young Muslim motorcycle-taxi driver was murdered at the weekend, angering Muslims who used grenades and guns in counter-attacks on Christians in nearby districts.
Around 100 people were wounded in the bloodshed, prompting the government to impose a curfew on the capital.
The PK-5 area was the epicentre of an unprecedented wave of violence pitting majority Christians against minority Muslims in late 2013 and early last year. Fears of a sudden refugee influx saw the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo announce the immediate closure of its northern border with the landlocked former French colony.
One in 10 Central Africans -- 460,000 people -- have sought refuge outside the country, mainly in Cameroon, Chad, DR Congo and Congo, since the start of the conflict.
In Bangui, terrified residents fled to camps by the airport, where French and UN peacekeepers from the MINUSCA force are based.
MINUSCA denied reports that its troops on Monday killed three people and injured others after opening fire on a crowd of several hundred demonstrators heading towards the presidency to demand Samba Panza`s resignation.
But it pledged to look into the allegations. The 10,000-strong peacekeeping force is already facing damaging accusations of sex abuse, while French troops, numbering around 1,000, face separate sex abuse allegations.UN spokesman Rupert Colville said in Geneva that some 500 prisoners had escaped from Bangui`s main prison overnight, adding to the climate of insecurity.
"This is a huge setback for the preservation of law and order, and for the fight against impunity, which has been and remains a chronic problem in CAR," he told reporters.
Overnight, shooting erupted as security forces tried to stop looters from attacking the premises of several humanitarian organisations, which had been evacuated for security reasons, a military source told AFP.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was "alarmed by the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Bangui" and had not been able to work in the capital since Sunday.
The UN`s humanitarian coordinator in the country, Aurelien Agbenonci, strongly condemned attacks against the aid organisations, adding: "All perpetrators of crimes against humanitarians will be held accountable."
Looters targeted the offices of the UN World Food Programme, French medical NGO Premiere Urgence and the Dutch NGO Cordaid, police said, indicating that they had repelled them in several places.
The Central African Republic descended into bloodshed more than two years ago after longtime president Francois Bozize, a Christian, was ousted by Seleka rebels, triggering the worst crisis since independence in 1960.
Though the tit-for-tat sectarian attacks have subsided significantly since last year, Bangui is still plagued by violent crime, fuelled in part by easy access to weapons left over from the conflict.
Presidential and legislative elections are due by the end of the year, but have already been pushed back several times.