Chad peacekeepers killed in C. Africa capital clashes

Five Chadian peacekeepers have died in clashes in the Central African Republic capital, where French troops on Thursday were out in force a day after heavy gunfire sowed panic in the city.

The circumstances of the Chadian deaths in Bangui, which occurred on Wednesday as chaos and fighting gripped the city, were unclear, a spokesman of the African Union force of which they were part told AFP.

"Yesterday the city was in total chaos and this chaos lasted until the end of the night. Today we are trying to understand what happened," said Eloi Yao.

The Chadian contingent of the African Union peacekeeping force has been accused of siding with a mostly Muslim former rebel group in the strife-torn majority Christian country.

Heavy arms fire erupted in the capital Bangui on Wednesday, triggering panic among residents, with thousands streaming to the airport, where French and African peacekeepers are based and where tens of thousands of civilians have already sought shelter from the violence wracking their city.

The clashes prompted the French force to deploy armoured vehicles near the airport.

The fighting subsided by late evening and on Thursday French peacekeepers were out in force in the streets of the capital that were still largely deserted.

The resource-rich but impoverished country has been wracked by ever-escalating violence since a March coup by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels installed Michel Djotodia as the country's first Muslim president.

Although Djotodia disbanded the rebels, some of them went rogue, leading to months of killing, rape and pillaging and prompting Christians to form vigilante groups in response.

French and African Union troops have been struggling to restore order in the notoriously unstable nation since receiving a UN mandate in early December.

The task has been complicated by accusations that soldiers from Chad, which is mainly Muslim and which has been traditionally influential in its neighbour, have been siding with the Muslim Seleka.

The accusations have been fanned by several incidents, including one on Monday when Burundian troops in the AU force said Chadian soldiers opened fire on them as they were disarming former rebels.

In another incident on Monday, Chadian peacekeepers opened fire on stone-throwing mostly Christian protesters, killing one man and wounding around 40 others.

Amid the tensions, the AU force on Wednesday said it would redeploy the Chadian contingent out of the capital to the north of the country.

In Wednesday's deadly clashes, the Christian vigilante groups appeared to have attacked Chadian troops in the Gobongo neighbourhood, near the city's airport, according to residents reached by telephone.

The Chadians pushed back the attack with help from Seleka fighters, several residents told AFP.

The reports could not be confirmed with the AU force or French peacekeepers.

The Burundian peacekeepers also came under fire, they and the residents said.

"Several of our position were attacked during the night. We pushed back the assailants without any losses to our side," the head of the Burundian contingent, Lieutenant Colonel Pontien Hakizimana told AFP.

Early on Thursday a charred Chadian army pick-up remained on the streets in Gobongo, with a body visible inside.