The Red Cross has said hundreds of people have been killed in the Central African Republic. It comes after the UN authorized French troops to restore order and as African leaders meet in Paris to discuss the conflict.
France deployed around 1,000 troops on the ground in the Central African Republic capital Bangui on Friday, joining hundreds of soldiers from other neighboring countries patrolling the streets in a bid to ease tensions.
But violent clashes and massacres since Thursday between Muslim and Christian militias have continued, claiming at least 281 lives, according to the Red Cross, which said its toll came from counting bodies in morgues and collecting more from the streets.
The head of the Red Cross in the country, Pastor Antoine Mbao Bogo, said the toll was expected to rise significantly when staff resumed work on Saturday.
"Tomorrow is going to be a monster of a day. We're going to work tomorrow and I think we're going to need a fourth day too," he said.
Thousands of residents have gathered at Bangui airport, where both the French army and an African force have bases, in an effort to find refuge from the fighting. The French army says that same area was the scene of a clash on Thursday between armed men and French troops, in which several Central African Republic fighters were killed.
The Central African Republic has seen months of unrest and violence since Seleka rebels toppled former president Francois Bozize in March and installed their own chief, Michel Djotodia, as president - the first Muslim leader of the majority Christian country. The Muslim-led uprising has led to tit-for-tat sectarian violence with the nation's Christian majority.
Djotodia is accused of failing to keep his predominantly Muslim militia under control, allowing them to prey upon the Christian population.
The UN estimates that 400,000 people have been displaced in the fighting, with 68,000 fleeing to neighboring countries. The Central African Republic is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium but it's been mired in crisis from decades of instability and spillover from conflicts in its larger neighbors.
On Thursday, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution allowing French and African Union troops to use force if necessary to stabilize the country. Included in the resolution was a mandate for 3,600 additional African troops and for France to double its current deployment in the country to 1,200.
France's military deployment marks its second major African operation this year, following its invention in Mali to oust al Qaeda-linked rebels from the country's unruly north.
Central Africa security summit in Paris
The fighting and intervention comes as French president Francois Hollande hosts 40 African leaders and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for a meeting on conflict in Central Africa. A separate mini-summit will be held on the sidelines on the Central African Republic.
On Friday, Hollande said there was an urgent need for the continent to create its own regional security force.
"Africa must be the master of its own destiny and that means mastering its own security," Hollande said.
Guinean president Alpha Conde called for the creation of an African version of NATO, saying France should not be relied upon to intervene.
"We are grateful to France but it's not normal that it's forced to intervene to save us, like a fireman, 50 years after independence," Conde told the Paris conference.
"What's happening in Bangui, coming so soon after Mali, should make us all reflect and I hope here that we will ... give ourselves the means to resolve conflicts in Africa."
jr/ccp (AFP, Reuters, AP)