BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Heavy gunfire erupted in the capital of the Central African Republic on Thursday and at least 16 people were killed and dozens of civilians wounded. The United Nations planned to authorize within hours an intervention force into the near anarchic and impoverished nation.
Thursday's fighting was between the mostly Muslim fighters who control the impoverished nation and Christians who support its ousted president. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has warned that the country is on "the verge of genocide."
In New York, the United Nations Security Council is set to authorize on Thursday troops from African nations and former colonial power France to deploy here. An attack earlier this week, blamed on Christian fighters, killed nearly a dozen women and children in a remote community.
Fabius said Thursday that military intervention would unfold swiftly after the U.N. vote, telling BFM-TV that the French deployment would total around 1,200, with 600 troops already in place.
"We have to end this humanitarian catastrophe and restore security," Fabius said.
Thursday morning's fighting left at least 16 dead and 45 wounded, said Sylvain Groulx, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders. Groulx said the toll included only those bodies taken to two hospitals in Bangui, leaving open the possibility of further deaths.
Incoming French ambassador Charles Malinas confirmed that the homes of CAR Prime Minister Nicholas Tiangaye and President Michel Djotodia were looted during Thursday's violence.
Tiangaye confirmed his house had been looted, describing the attackers as a group of Seleka who arrived in three four-wheel-drive pickup trucks favored by the rebels.
"It's true, my house was attacked and pillaged," he said, adding that his family was evacuated from the house beforehand and were safe.
Crackles of gunfire first erupted around 6 a.m. and lasted several hours. French forces patrolled in light vehicles and armored personnel carriers.
By midday, the country's president — installed by the rebel forces earlier this year — said the fighting was over and called for an end to the conflict.
"Everything is calm. Everything is fine," Djotodia told BFM in a phone interview.
The former rebel coalition known as Seleka, which now claims control of the government, is an unlikely group of allies who united a year ago with the goal of forcing President Francois Bozize from the presidency after a decade in power. After thousands of rebels besieged Bangui in March, Bozize fled and the insurgents installed their leader Djotodia as president.
A pickup truck bristling with Seleka soldiers raced through the capital Thursday, while other members carried out house to house searches in opposition neighborhoods.
Djotodia has increasingly sought to distance himself from his former allies as the Seleka rebels have been blamed for scores of atrocities in Bangui, killing and raping civilians and stealing from aid groups and orphanages. He has even less control over the ex-Seleka in the distant provinces where anger over human rights abuses fueled the formation of the Christian anti-balaka movement several months ago. Balaka means "machete."
In the interview Thursday, Djotodia appealed for calm.
"We would like the French to help bring peace to our transition," he said.
While the anti-balaka fighters include villagers defending their communities against Seleka attacks with artisanal hunting rifles and machetes, the group is believed to be receiving support from those still allied to Bozize. The anti-balaka fighters also have been implicated in massacres on Muslim civilian populations, which also have suffered under the Seleka regime and say they are being unfairly blamed for Seleka's wanton destruction.
The death toll has been impossible to estimate in Central African Republic, a long lawless and desperately poor country in the heart of Africa where many roads have not been repaved since independence from France in 1960.
The U.N. Security Council resolution would authorize the deployment of an African Union-led force to Central African Republic for a year to protect civilians and restore security and public order. The AU force is replacing a regional peacekeeping mission whose presence has been mainly limited to the capital and a few northern cities.
The U.N. resolution also would authorize French forces, for a temporary period, "to take all necessary measures" to support the AU-led force known as MISCA, whose troop numbers are expected to rise from about 2,500 to 3,500.
AP reporters Lori Hinnant and Sylvie Corbet contributed reporting from Paris.