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Peacekeepers clash with anti-balaka fighters in C Africa

AFP | Last Updated: Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 02:26

Bangui: Rockets and grenade explosions rocked the capital of the Central African Republic on Wednesday as international peacekeepers and militias waged deadly clashes near the city`s airport.

Heavy artillery fire could be heard in the morning near the airport in Bangui, where French and African forces have set up bases as they seek to subdue the mostly Christian "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) militia terrorising the Muslim minority.

Bullets landed close to French soldiers guarding the entrance to the airport, according to AFP reporters on the scene, as around 100 people from a vast refugee camp sought refuge in the terminal building, only to be ordered back by the soldiers.

Gunfire could also be heard before dawn in the Boy-Rabe neighbourhood, an anti-balaka stronghold north of the city.

Two people died out of around 40 wounded who were admitted to hospital in Bangui, many with bullet wounds, a hospital source said.

The anti-balaka, holed up in neighbourhoods close to the airport, have lately become the main target of the African Union-led MISCA force, backed up by troops from France`s Operation Sangaris.

But some in the majority Christian country have reacted angrily, with locals setting up barricades near the airport in a bid to hamper operations against the anti-balaka.

The militia emerged last year to fight back against rogue fighters from a mostly Muslim rebel group, the Seleka, who had been sowing violence since overthrowing the government last March.

Since the rebels were forced from power last month, the anti-balaka have stepped up reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians.

The wave of Muslim-Christian violence has left hundreds dead, with hundreds of thousands displaced in a surge of killings, mutilations and rapes that has sparked warnings of ethnic cleansing.Interim president Catherine Samba Panza recently vowed to "go to war" against the anti-balaka.

On Saturday, international forces launched a major operation to disarm the militia, seeking -- in vain -- to arrest its self-styled political leader, Patrice Edouard Ngaissona.

The following day saw a clash between the militia and MISCA forces that left 11 people dead in the village of Cantonnier on the border with Cameroon.

On Wednesday 200 to 300 young men gathered a few hundred metres (yards) from the airport entrance shouting slogans against the French and African troops, as well as the country`s transitional authorities.

Protesters had put up barricades on the main road leading to the airport, though international forces later cleared them.

The latest unrest forced a high-ranking United Nations delegation to cancel a planned trip from Bangui to the northwestern town of Bossangoa, where the anti-balaka first emerged.

Chadian President Idriss Deby on Tuesday called on the UN to provide "all necessary means" to resolve the crisis.

"It will take more men, more money.... The task must go to the United Nations, as the only institution with the means to pull the CAR out of its current chaos," he said.

France deployed 1,600 men in early December in support of the 6,000-strong MISCA force, and earlier this week announced that it would send 400 more.

The European Union is to start deploying a 1,000-strong peacekeeping mission next month.

First Published: Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 02:26

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