Rebels crack down on looting after C. Africa coup

Rebel leaders in the Central African Republic on Tuesday cracked down on looters roaming the streets of the capital following the latest coup in the unstable nation.

Bandits, local residents and rebels themselves were on the rampage in Bangui after strongman Michel Djotodia's Seleka rebel coalition seized control in a rapid-fire weekend assault that forced president Francois Bozize into exile.

Djotodia was expected to unveil a new government after announcing he planned to rule by decree until elections are held in three years.

"There is pillaging everywhere, it's very hard to control anything," a soldier from the FOMAC African force told AFP.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said the fighting had left scores dead. Thirteen South African troops were among those killed, the nation's heaviest post-apartheid military loss.

"We can't give figures for the moment, but there was a large number of wounded and killed," Georgios Georgantas, the senior official of the ICRC in the country told AFP. "Red Cross volunteers are deployed in the city to help the wounded and clear the bodies."

Bangui remained tense, with hundreds of people roaming the streets on foot, many looking for food, and rebel patrols occasionally shooting bursts of gunfire into the air to disperse onlookers.

In a bid to win the population over, Seleka forces were making a show of punishing those committing the looting.

In the Cattin area of Bangui, one rebel tied the hands of a looter to his feet behind his back and dragged him several metres on the ground -- his cries of pain drowned out by the applause of onlookers.

He was hauled into a pick-up. Minutes later, another joined him. He was flogged with bullet belts.

"Zero tolerance for looters," said General Moussa Mohammed Dhaffane, a Seleka member who was helping track looters, running down dusty streets, his gun drawn.

Djotodia, a former diplomat and civil servant who joined rebel forces in 2005, said he will keep Nicolas Tiangaye as prime minister in a power-sharing government after declaring Monday that he was suspending the constitution and dissolving parliament and government.

"During that transition period which will lead us to free, credible and transparent elections, I will legislate by decree," he told reporters.

He promised elections for 2016 and did not rule out running in the polls.

The African Union suspended the landlocked former French colony on Monday, and the UN Security Council condemned the coup, threatening unspecified "further measures".

The UN's children agency UNICEF, meanwhile, warned that the lives of thousands of children were at risk because of a lack of access to basic aid, food shortages and the ongoing use of child soldiers in the country.

The power change followed a lightning rebel offensive that shattered a January 11 power-sharing deal between the old regime and Seleka.

Bozize, who himself seized power in a 2003 coup, fled to neighbouring Cameroon where he spent the night in the luxury Hilton hotel in the capital Yaounde, according to a local official.

"Negotiations are currently under way so that he leaves as soon as possible for another country," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Members of his family have fled to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and on Tuesday arrived in the capital Kinshasa, according to a government spokesman.

The Seleka rebels were initially welcomed by Bangui residents waving palm leaves in celebration, but the mood quickly darkened as looters took to the streets.

International aid agency Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF) said the violence had prevented critically wounded patients from getting proper treatment and that its offices had been pillaged.

Former colonial power France, which sent in 300 troops to reinforce 250 soldiers stationed there, said its forces had shot dead two Indian nationals who approached Bangui airport in speeding vehicles Monday "in a particularly confusing situation".

A statement from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed "deep distress" over the deaths. French President Francois Hollande had written to him expressing his regret and promising an investigation, it added.

The Central African Republic is an impoverished but mineral-rich nation of 4.5 million that has been roiled by a series of coups and mutinies since independence from France in 1960.

Bozize never delivered on his promises to harness the oil, gold and uranium wealth that remains largely untapped because of the chronic instability, leaving the country woefully underdeveloped.