Homes burn in C. African town despite French army presence

Homes burn in C. African town despite French army presence
Seleka soldiers rolling marijuana

BOSSANGOA, Central African Republic - French peacekeeping troops have arrived in the Central African Republic town of Bossangoa, but houses still burn and weapons remain rife as sectarian resentment simmers.

"We are on maximum alert," a humanitarian aid worker told AFP this week in the key town, one of the most badly affected by the Christian-Muslim violence that has swept the country.

Panic has spread among residents because of two rumours of massacres in the region. French forces, African troops and relief agencies also say they have received reports of a large attack planned by Christian militias against Muslims.

On Wednesday, a French patrol bumped into a group of armed men from Seleka - the officially disbanded, mostly Muslim rebel group that overthrew the government in March and installed its leader, Michel Djotodia, as president.

The French troops disarmed the men and put their Kalashnikovs in storage with between 100 and 200 other weapons seized over a fortnight in the region, said French military sources.

In a night raid on a house, French soldiers also seized jerrycans of petrol, hours after a series of fires that razed straw huts in both Christian and Muslim districts of the city.

"Tensions are getting higher from day to day," said a relief worker.

Aid workers were all the more watchful after getting alarming news from Paoua, 150 kilometres (90 miles) away, where Seleka forces opened fire with assault rifles and rocket launchers and Christian militias warned of reprisals.

Nobody was reported killed or wounded. The gunfire followed a failed bid to broker peace between the people of the small town near the Chadian border and the "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) militias formed by Christians to fight Muslims.

 'There are weapons in the camps'

"Things are still fragile, there are still hotbeds of tension," said Captain Angoya Aboni, who commands the Bossangoa unit of MISCA, a regional African force deployed to the Central African Republic (CAR) - which on Thursday ceremonially passed under the authority of the African Union.

Aboni's 150 Congolese soldiers patrol the town in pick-up trucks, armed with Kalashnikovs.

"Looting is still going on at night to avoid detection by the African and French forces' patrols," he said. "And assailants from whom we recover weapons come from (refugee) camps, proving that there are weapons in the camps."

On December 7, after an upsurge of violence in the region and other parts of the CAR, the MISCA contingent wanted to disarm anti-balaka forces mingled in with some 40,000 Christians who had sought refuge around the local episcopal residence. But the operation was called off over fears it might cause a riot.

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