French troops kill ex-rebels in Central Africa

French peacekeeping troops killed several former rebels after they came under heavy fire while on patrol in the Central African Republic, military sources said on Tuesday.

The French soldiers opened fire on gunmen from the ex-rebel movement Seleka who ambushed them when they entered the northern town of Batangafo on Monday, an officer with the African peacekeeping force MISCA told AFP.

Several fighters from the mainly Muslim former rebel force were killed in heavy fire from French forces in the centre of the town, the officer added, asking not to be named.

"The clash lasted for hours and loud explosions frightened many residents who fled to the bush," the officer said.

The French troops took no casualties, though they were "very violently assaulted by rather heavily armed groups -- heavy weapons, notably anti-tank missiles -- on pick-up trucks and motorbikes," the military general staff stated in Paris.

The attack was carried out by "about 100 fighters who acted in a fairly coordinated way and tried several manoeuvres to overwhelm the French contingent," the general staff added.

Rafale jet fighters and army helicopters were scrambled from a permanent French military base in neighbouring Chad to help the ground troops, who were on a reconnaissance mission and returned to base afterwards.

Last week at least 22 people were killed in clashes in Batangafo between Seleka fighters and the rival "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) militia drawn largely from the Christian majority, according to MISCA, which has worked alongside French troops since last December.

Batangafo is a flashpoint town in the district of Ouham, home of former president Francois Bozize, who was overthrown by the Seleka rebels who seized power for 10 months in March 2013.

Rogue Seleka fighters carried out a campaign of violence against Christians in the following months, prompting the creation of the anti-balaka vigilante groups. Human rights organisations have documented widespread atrocities by both sides.

Fighting between the rival forces has plunged the country into a cycle of brutal sectarian violence that has left thousands of people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, with almost the entire Muslim community abandoning the capital Bangui and other southern parts of the country.

Batanfago, controlled by ex-Seleka fighters and armed ethnic Fulanis, lies on the northern edge of territory where anti-balaka forces operate. Clashes round the town have constituted the main breaches of a tentative ceasefire signed by rival leaders late last month.