Rebel fighters and armed Muslims killed “many” people in an attack on a church compound in the Central African Republic on Monday where thousands of civilians had taken refuge, Catholic Church officials said.
The attack in Bambari, 380 km (236 miles) northwest of the capital Bangui, came just a day before French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was due to visit the town, where a grenade attack injured seven French soldiers last week.
Church officials said fighters from the Seleka rebel movement and armed civilians from the town’s Muslim community entered St. Joseph’s Cathedral around 3 pm (10 p.m. EDT)
“We don’t have the exact death toll yet, but many people have been killed. As I’m speaking to you, they are still there,” Rev. Jesus Martial Dembele, vicar general for the archdiocese of Bangui, told Reuters.
“(The French force) Sangaris are near the site but they didn’t intervene,” he said.
Between 4,000 and 6,000 mainly Christian civilians live at the cathedral, church officials said.
Rev. Firmin Gbagoua, a priest at the cathedral, said the attackers believed Christian militia fighters, known as anti-balaka or anti-machete, were based inside.
“They came in. They are killing people,” a nun inside the compound told Reuters during the attack before quickly hanging up the phone. Further attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.
Bambari is home to Seleka’s military headquarters.
A Seleka official told Reuters the group had been attacked by anti-balaka fighters in a majority Muslim neighborhood. One Muslim civilian was killed in the clash, he said.
“All we did was retaliate,” said Ahmat Negad, one of the group’s spokesmen in Bambari.
ALONG A FAULT LINE
A resident of Bambari said a French military helicopter was flying over the town by late afternoon, however a spokesman for France’s defense ministry said he was not aware of the incident.
Bambari sits on a fault line that has emerged across the country, where over a year of violence has killed thousands, forced a million from their homes and sent most Muslims fleeing into northern zones closer to Chad and Sudan.
At least 22 people were killed there in fighting last month.
The violence stems back to the takeover of the majority Christian country last year by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group, whose time in power was marked by a string of rights abuses that spawned the Christian militia.
Seleka stepped down earlier this year under intense international pressure. But a weak interim government has failed to stamp its authority on the country and violence continues despite the presence of about 6,000 African Union peacekeepers and 2,000 French soldiers.
French soldiers also make up part of a European Union military force deployed in the capital.
In addition to the seven French soldiers injured in Bambari on Thursday, three others were injured in another grenade attack in Bangui the following day.
In both cases, French soldier were assisting Central African forces attempting to arrest the leaders of armed groups, army spokesman Gilles Jaron said.
“It is urgent that a political framework be reinstalled and that the disarmament process begins,” he said. “As long as there are armed movements – whether anti-balaka, Seleka, or bandits – as long as the groups are not disarmed, we will not be headed towards stabilisation.”