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French troops had to call for air backup to fight off an assault by well-armed militants in the Central African Republic on Monday in clashes that left several gunmen dead, the military chief of staff in Paris said.
Around 40 heavily-armed militants riding motorcycles and pick-up trucks attacked the French peacekeepers on a road leading to the village of Boguila in the northwest of the strife-torn country, a spokesman told AFP.
"Faced with the aggressiveness of this adversary, the French force resorted to heavy arms, mortars and anti-tank missiles," said Colonel Gilles Jaron. "There was air backup from fighter jets from N'Djamena," which are permanently based in neighbouring Chad.
The battle, which lasted for about three hours and stopped as night fell, wrecked vehicles in the militant convoy and left several of the attackers dead, while others made off in the dark, the army chief said.
No casualties were reported on the French side.
The night was calm in the district, patrolled by troops from the 2,000-strong French Operation Sangaris, which was first deployed last December to back up the African Union-led MISCA military force.
No MISCA troops were in the area, where former rebels of the Seleka alliance that seized power for 10 months in a March 2013 coup are known to have fallen back after defeats in the south.
Throughout the region, the mainly Muslim ex-rebels are accused of atrocities against civilians and humanitarian personnel. Armed members of the local Fulani community are also accused of violence.
The raid on the French soldiers followed a brutal attack on Saturday against a Boguila hospital run by the international charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), in which 16 people were slaughtered, including three MSF workers. Six other people were killed nearby.
MSF said Monday that it would cut back its activities in the CAR for a week, apart from "emergency medical care", in protest not only at the killings, but the failure of the transitional government and spokesmen for armed groups to condemn them.
In a statement, the charity also condemned what it called "an indifferent reaction from the international community and peacekeeping forces".
The latest conflict in the landlocked and deeply poor CAR was triggered when many ex-Seleka fighters went rogue, targeting civilians and their property in vicious attacks that displaced hundreds of thousands.
In response, vigilante forces known as "anti-balaka" were formed in mainly Christian communities to kill and terrorise Muslims. The ferocity of the conflict in a country where the two religious communities previously lived peacefully together has led to international warnings of a potential genocide.