French deploy armoured vehicles at Bangui airport amid heavy gunfire

Heavy arms fire triggered panic Wednesday in the Central African capital Bangui, prompting a French force to deploy armoured vehicles near the airport, where tens of thousands of residents are seeking refuge from deadly sectarian violence.

The vehicles took positions at the entrance to the airport, where French and African peacekeepers are based, after automatic weapons fire and explosions shook several parts of the city.

The gunfire subsided as night fell, giving way to a tense calm in the capital in which residents are grappling with increasingly unreliable electricity and telephone connections.

Tens of thousands of people have been sheltering in precarious conditions on the airport grounds since the sectarian bloodletting erupted early this month in the former French colony, claiming hundreds of lives.

Automatic weapons fire, much of it from heavy machine guns, was heard but apparently not directed at the airport. It was especially intense in the nearby PK12 area.

Hundreds of panicked residents could be seen fleeing the area on foot towards central Bangui.

In chaotic scenes, others sought to join the displaced people already at the airport, overseen by French soldiers manning combat positions behind sandbags.

Some residents who spoke to AFP by telephone accused former rebels backing Muslim interim president Michel Djotodia of mounting attacks, while others named Christian vigilantes as the aggressors.

Although Djotodia officially disbanded his Seleka rebels after seizing power in a March coup, some of its members went rogue, leading to months of killing, rape and pillaging -- and prompting some majority Christians to form vigilante groups.

One resident in a Muslim-majority neighbourhood said an unspecified number of bodies were brought to the local mosque.

Bangui was virtually deserted Wednesday because of regular outbursts of gunfire in other areas throughout the day.

Peacekeeping troops were also absent from the streets, with only one helicopter, probably French, circling above.

Chad troops to leave Bangui

Earlier Wednesday, a spokesman for the African peacekeeping force MISCA said its Chadian troops would be redeployed out of the capital amid charges they were siding with a former rebel group.

"The whole Chadian contingent will be sent to secure the north in the next few days," MISCA spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ndong Toutoune told AFP.

The spokesman did not elaborate on how or exactly where the Chadian troops would redeploy in the impoverished country that has for decades been prone to coups, rebellions and mutinies.

Later, several Chadian MISCA armoured vehicles and jeeps could be seen leaving the airport and heading towards the city centre.

The Chadians, mainly because they are Muslim, face accusations by many in Bangui of complicity with the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels who overthrew president Francois Bozize in March in the predominantly Christian country.

Amnesty International says some 1,000 people were killed in just a couple of days in early December, mostly by Muslim ex-rebels but also in Christian reprisal attacks.

The head of the Burundian contingent in the African MISCA force told AFP his men were disarming former rebels on Monday when Chadian troops from MISCA threw a grenade and opened fire on them, prompting some Burundian elements to return fire, wounding three Chadians.

The fighting has virtually wiped out Christmas for the country's Christians, though they fit in a Christmas Eve mass at Bangui's red-brick cathedral before a dusk-to-dawn curfew took effect on Tuesday.

"We must speak out freely and say in one voice 'This should never happen again,'" Bangui Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga said in an emotional sermon as soldiers stood guard.

On Monday, Chadian soldiers had opened fire on hundreds of stone-throwing protesters, mostly Christians, killing one man and wounding around 40 others, three seriously.

Traditionally influential in the Central African Republic, neighbouring Chad is France's main partner in its efforts to re-establish peace in the country. It contributes 850 troops to the 3,700-strong MISCA force.

But the growing defiance of Central Africans toward the Chadian contingent is complicating the task of the 1,600 French troops deployed to the country since the beginning of December.

The UN refugee agency says the unrest has uprooted more than 200,000 people from their homes.