BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — African peacekeepers fired into the air Thursday in Central African Republic's chaotic capital, trying to disperse a mob bent on hunting down and killing Muslims taking refuge in a church compound.
The unrest in Bangui underscored the rage and uncertainty that remains in the capital of the Central African Republic, despite the arrival of 1,600 French soldiers and patrols by regional African peacekeepers. The two forces are seeking to stabilize this impoverished, now lawless, country after more than 500 people were killed last week in sectarian bloodshed.
In March, an alliance of mostly Muslim rebels from the north tossed out the country's Christian president in a coup that brought President Michel Djotodia to power. Rage has mounted recently against the men who took part in that coup, known as Seleka, who have also been accused of carrying out scores of attacks on civilians since then.
On Thursday, several thousand people stood by as a group of young men lobbing huge rocks tried to break into the compound of the Saint-Jacques Church in Bangui, looking for an ex-rebel general they believed to be inside.
The crowd began chanting "Kill him! Kill him!" as others placed a large felled tree in front of the gate to prevent people from escaping from the refuge.
"He has attacked everyone and is responsible for many abuses here in Bangui," said Jonny Clevar, 18, as he and his friends stood near the entrance to the church. "We want to kill him."
After firing their guns, the regional peacekeepers hustled several men from the church compound during the melee that ensued, although the men wore civilian clothing and appeared to be Muslim clerics rather than ex-rebels. The mob hurled rocks at the peacekeepers and their vehicles and only dispersed after shots were fired, sending people scurrying behind trees for cover as sirens blared.
Suspected Seleka have come under growing threat in Bangui since massive bloodshed erupted in the capital on Dec. 5. Christians are a majority in the capital — and in Central African Republic — and months of resentment toward the mostly Muslim leadership have been unleashed in a series of attacks on people affiliated with Islam or with perceived links to them.
One crowd earlier this week stoned to death a suspected Seleka member in front of his house and then set his two cars ablaze as onlookers watched.
Despite the melee outside the church, daily life resumed in many other parts of the capital. Gas stations and food markets reopened for the first time since Christian militiamen attacked the capital on Dec. 5. More than 500 people have been killed in bouts of retaliatory violence in the days that followed, and the U.N. estimates some 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes in the capital alone by the violence.
French forces are trying to disarm Bangui, a city awash in weapons after decades of coups and rebellions, but they have faced a backlash from terrified residents. Two French soldiers were killed earlier this week when they came under attack from gunmen near the city's airport.
There are an estimated 3,000 to 8,000 armed militia members belonging to diverse alliances in Bangui. Most have abided by calls by the French and African forces to hand in their weapons or return to their barracks, said Col. Gilles Jaron, a French military spokesman.
"The number of weapons circulating has dropped significantly in Bangui," he said in Paris on Thursday. "What remains is a certain number of individuals prone to carrying them or hiding them. It will take time to try to find these people and the weapons caches."
Central African Republic, which is about 85 percent Christian, had little history of sectarian violence before the rebellion overthrew the government nearly nine months ago. The rebels, whose motivations were primarily economic at the outset, have been blamed for scores of atrocities.