BANGUI (Reuters) - Heavy and small arms fire rang out in the capital of Central African Republic on Thursday, the heaviest clashes in Bangui for months, hours before a U.N. vote is due to authorize a French mission to restore order.
Former rebels controlling the city scrambled fighters in the direction of the gunfire and said they had come under attack from local militia and fighters loyal to ousted President Francois Bozize. In the pre-dawn hours, panicked residents scrambled for safety.
The U.N. Security Council is due to vote later on Thursday on dispatching 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.
"There has been gunfire all over town," Amy Martin, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bangui, told Reuters.
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 neighboring Chad and Sudan.
Mainly Christian local defense groups, known as "anti-balaka", have sprung up as a result of abuses committed 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.
Martin said that the clashes appeared to have started around the Boy Rabe neighborhood, a stronghold of Bozize that has been repeatedly raided by Seleka forces amid reports arms had been distributed to civilians before the former president fell.
"The situation is very worrying. There are serious risks," said Cameroonian General Martin Tumenta Chomu, who heads the African Union peacekeeping mission, MISCA.
Central African Republic is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium but decades of instability and spillover from conflicts in its larger neighbors have kept it mired in crisis.
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 decisive international action to prevent the anarchy in Central African Republic leading to major atrocities against the civilian population.
"When Seleka entered, there were dead Christians. This time it could be worse ... We need the French. The French have to come quickly," Wilfred Koyamba, a Bangui resident told Reuters.
Another resident said he saw a group of about 40 "anti-balaka" fighters in the Ngaragba neighborhood, some in military fatigues others in jeans and shorts.
Armed with AK47 assault rifles and rocket launchers, they broke open the doors to the prison. One of the fighters told the resident: "Stay at home. Show us the houses of the Muslims."
Several French armored personnel carriers were seen driving through the streets of the riverside town early on Thursday. Troops and vehicles were deployed outside the French embassy.
France has had 400 troops in Bangui to control the airport and protect French interests but reinforcements have been dispatched to prepare for the 1,000-strong force that is due to help the struggling African peacekeeping mission restore order.
In a sign of the spreading violence, earlier this week, the United Nations said armed men killed at least 12 civilians and wounded 30, including children, northwest of Bangui.
(Additional reporting by David Lewis in Dakar and Joe Bavier and Ange Aboa in Abidjan; Writing by David Lewis; editing by Patrick Graham)