BANGUI - Gunfire echoed through the capital of Central African Republic on Thursday in the heaviest clashes there for months, hours before the UN was expected to authorise a French mission to curb escalating Muslim-Christian sectarian violence.
Former rebels controlling Bangui said they had come under attack from local militia and fighters loyal to ousted president Francois Bozize. A Reuters witness at one hospital said at least 23 people had been killed since shooting began before dawn. He saw another 64 wounded, including women and children.
Mindful of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when hundreds of thousands were killed as the world looked on, the United States and other Western powers are lobbying for international action to prevent the anarchy in Central African Republic leading to major atrocities against the civilian population.
"There has been gunfire all over town," Amy Martin, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bangui, told Reuters.
The UN Security Council is due to vote later on Thursday on dispatching hundreds of French reinforcements to restore order in the country, which has slipped into chaos since mainly Muslim rebels seized power in March, leading to tit-for-tat sectarian violence.
Central African Republic is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium but decades of instability and spillover from conflicts in its larger neighbours have kept it mired in crisis.
Michel Djotodia, leader of the Seleka former rebel alliance, is now the country's interim president but he has struggled to control his loose band of fighters, many of whom are gunmen from neighbouring Chad and Sudan.
Mainly Christian local defence groups, known as "anti-balaka", have sprung up in response to abuses committed in Bangui and up-country by the former rebels.
General Arda Hakouma, a former rebel now head of Djotodia's personal security detail, said "anti-balaka" forces had attacked and fighting was taking place in three parts of the city - PK12, PK9, and the 4th district.
"There are many of them. Some of them are well armed with rifles and rocket launchers. Others are dressed in civilian clothes with machetes," he said.