Gunmen fatally shot two French soldiers in Central African Republic's volatile capital, officials said Tuesday, underscoring the enormous challenges of a new French military intervention in its former colony that includes disarming thousands of rebels accused of attacking civilians.
President Michel Djotodia condemned the attack on the French forces and blamed former leader Francois Bozize, whom he ousted from power in March, for creating the turmoil now being unleashed on the streets of Bangui. More than 500 people have been killed in the capital since Thursday and some 100,000 forced from their homes, aid officials say.
The deaths of the French soldiers came as French President Francois Hollande paid a visit to Central African Republic on Tuesday night, heading into the tumultuous capital after attending a memorial in South Africa for Nelson Mandela.
Speaking in a huge airport hangar, Hollande told French troops their comrades died "for a noble and beautiful mission. They gave their lives to save others."
The early French casualties underscore the volatility of the mission to disarm combatants and bring stability to a largely anarchic capital. 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 Bangui. Smoke billowed from smoldering vehicles nearby, and young men used pick axes and whatever tools they found 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.
The president of Central African Republic said Tuesday that former leader Bozize and his supporters had set the stage for the crisis months ago.
"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 and religious hatred," Djotodia said Tuesday.
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 government of Central African Republic, a 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 that left more than 500 people dead. The local Red Cross said Tuesday its toll alone had grown from 394 to 461.
France now has some 1,600 troops on the ground in Central African Republic, patrolling neighbourhoods and trying to disarm militants from the Seleka rebel movement that forced the president into exile and installed their own leader Michel Djotodia as head of state.
The two French troops were part of a team inspecting a neighbourhood just over a kilometre east of Bangui's airport at about 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 but died in the hospital. 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.
Warning to disarm
And France's defence 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 of the International Crisis Group. "From now on they should move to disarm the Seleka combatants who are in the neighbourhoods 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 compared to France's mission in Mali earlier this year. A total of seven French soldiers have been killed there since January as a French-led African force routed al-Qaeda-linked extremists controlling the north.
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.