French President Francois Hollande arrived in the Central African Republic Tuesday, just hours after two French soldiers were killed in overnight fighting.
The deaths were France’s first casualties since it sent more troops to help end months of instability in the African country.
Hollande flew to the capital, Bangui, from South Africa, where he attended a memorial service Tuesday for former South African president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.
The French news agency reports Hollande took a few moments to bow before the coffins of the two soldiers, shortly after arriving in Bangui.
French defense officials say gunmen fatally shot the two soldiers, who were taking part in an operation to disarm militants near the airport in Bangui.
Some 1,600 French troops are working with African forces as part of a United Nations-mandated effort to restore security and protect civilians in the CAR.
France’s ambassador to the U.N., Gerard Araud, told reporters Tuesday the mission “will be difficult,” but France is not giving up.
"We have always been aware that it will be a difficult mission, especially because we want, of course, to disarm all the armed groups. That’s the first part. So it’s a very bloody incident, and of course we are moved by what happened to our soldiers. But we are determined to move forward," said Araud.
Tension between the country's Muslims and Christians appears to have escalated in recent days.
In a VOA interview, Amnesty International's Joanne Mariner said an angry mob in Bangui torched a mosque on Tuesday.
"They burned part of it, including burning down the home of the imam, and they were really dismantling it stone-by-stone," she said. "They were also yelling anti-Muslim slogans, making the sign of cutting somebody's throat and calling for the president to step down."
President Barack Obama issued a recorded message
to the people of the CAR, urging them to remain calm in the midst of the rising sectarian violence, which has caused hundreds of deaths in the past week. He called on them to "choose a different path."
"Respected leaders in your communities, Muslim and Christian, are calling for calm and peace," he said. "I call on the transitional government to join these voices and to arrest those who are committing crimes. Individuals who are engaging in violence must be held accountable in accordance with the law."
The Associated Press news agency quotes aid officials as saying the death toll in the CAR has reached more than 500.
A Pentagon spokesman said Monday the United States would transport African Union peacekeeping troops to the country from neighboring Burundi.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel agreed to the move after the French defense minister asked for the airlift assistance.
The instability in the impoverished country began in March, when the rebel Seleka movement ousted President Francois Bozize, but then disintegrated.
Witnesses have reported widespread looting and lawlessness, with the interim government unable to restore order.
Recent weeks have seen rising clashes between the mostly Muslim ex-rebels and mostly Christian armed groups known as anti-balaka.