BANGUI, Central African Republic — More than 500 people have been killed over the past week in sectarian fighting in Central African Republic, aid officials said Tuesday, as France reported that gunmen fatally shot two of its soldiers who were part of the intervention to disarm thousands of rebels accused of attacking civilians.
Aid workers have collected 461 bodies across the capital of Bangui since Thursday, Antoine Mbao Bogo with the local Red Cross said. But that latest figure does not include the scores of Muslim victims whose bodies were brought to mosques for burial.
The government of the predominantly Christian country was overthrown in March by Muslim rebels from the country’s north. While the rebels claimed no religious motive for seizing power, months of resentment and hostility erupted last week in a wave of violence.
The French deaths came as French President Francois Hollande arrived for a visit to France’s former colony, heading into the tumultuous capital after attending a memorial in South Africa for Nelson Mandela.
The casualties underscore the volatility of the mission to disarm combatants and bring stability to a largely anarchic capital riven by sectarian violence.
A mob on Monday stoned to death a suspected enemy in the street, and armed fighters have abducted and killed hospital patients.
Tensions flared again Tuesday as a mob of young men set fire to a mosque in the Fou neighborhood of the capital, Bangui. Smoke billowed from smoldering vehicles nearby, and young men used pick axes and whatever tools they could find to try to tear down the walls of the mosque.
Elsewhere, citizens killed three suspected ex-rebels in the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui after the men apparently fired weapons at civilians, residents said.
France now has some 1,600 troops on the ground, patrolling neighborhoods and trying to disarm militants from the Seleka rebel movement that forced the president into exile and installed President Michel Djotodia as head of state.
Djotodia condemned the attack on French forces and blamed former leader Francois Bozize for creating the turmoil, saying his supporters had set the stage for the current crisis.
“The current situation is the logical result of what former President Bozize set in motion by freeing prisoners and bandits, distributing weapons of war and machetes in the neighborhoods of Bangui, and inciting tribalism,” Djotodia said..
Bozize was overthrown after a decade in power and his current whereabouts are unknown. The former president maintains it was the arrival of thousands of rebels who descended upon the capital with arms who created the chaos.
The two French troops were part of a team inspecting a neighborhood just over a kilometer (less than a mile) east of Bangui’s airport close to midnight Monday, in preparation for a disarmament operation, French military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said in Paris.
Five to 10 gunmen opened fire on the French patrol, which returned fire, he said. Two Frenchmen were wounded and taken to the hospital where they died. It was unclear whether anyone else died in the clash.
Jaron described “sporadic fire” around Bangui and occasional clashes since the French disarmament efforts got under way Monday. France has described the program as a key part of its bid to stabilize Bangui, a city awash in weapons after years of rebellions and coups.
And France’s defense minister has warned militia groups to disarm peacefully — or French troops will do it by force.
“The launching of the disarmament operation of ex-Seleka in the city is an encouraging first stage in the effort to secure Bangui,” said Thibaud Lesueur with International Crisis Group, an organization that works to prevent conflict. “From now on they should move to disarm the Seleka combatants who are in the neighborhoods and find the caches of weapons that are still numerous in the city.”
Two deaths within days of the operation beginning marks a significant toll for the start-up of the operation. A total of seven French soldiers have been killed in Mali, another former colony, since the start of a French operation there in January to oust al-Qaida-linked extremists from power in northern cities.
French officials have warned of the dangers of the enhanced military mission alongside African Union troops in Central African Republic, authorized under a muscular mandate approved last week by the United Nations Security Council.