Clashes between fighters in Central African Republic killed at least three people and wounded five on Monday, a U.N. official and an aid worker said, amid intensifying violence in the country.
The latest fighting centered in and around the town of Bambari, much of it controlled for the last year by the Union for Peace in Central Africa (UPC), a faction of the former Seleka rebel alliance.
Central African Republic was plunged into sectarian violence when the mostly Muslim rebel group briefly seized power in the predominantly Christian country in early 2013, prompting a wave of reprisals by the anti-balaka militia. U.N. and French peacekeeping forces have failed to restore calm.
"Two people were killed during the fighting in a village 10 kilometers [6 miles] away [from Bambari] and one other died of his injuries," a U.N. official said on condition of anonymity. The dead were members of the UPC, its spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Witnesses said their deaths triggered more widespread violence in Bambari with gunmen opening fire in the town, burning houses and sending hundreds of people running for cover. They said anti-balaka forces descended into Bambari on foot, opening fire as UPC fighters roamed the streets on motorbikes while U.N. peacekeepers attempted to restore calm.
Successive waves of fighting have forced at least 360,000 people from their homes across Central African Republic with up to 40,000 displaced in Bambari alone, according to U.N. figures.
Many in Bambari have found temporary shelter near churches, disused factories or near the bases of the U.N. peacekeeping force, known as MINUSCA.
"This is the worst violence we have seen in Bambari since the end of September," said Nicolas Peissel, field coordinator for medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Ouaka province, where Bambari is situated.
The sound of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades reverberated around the town, whose buildings, many of them destroyed by recent clashes, lie among overgrown plants and weeds.
Earlier in the day dozens of Muslims had marched through Bambari, protesting against the proposed rearmament of the country's fractured armed forces which many distrust. "It is in heated moments like this when people have least access to medical support because they feel unsafe to seek help," said Peissel, whose team was assisting the wounded in Bambari's only functioning hospital.
"We have no idea where different rival groups will place themselves in the coming days meaning access to the hospital is not assured for those who need it most," Peissel said.
Last Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was deeply concerned by worsening violence in the Central African Republic.
It said since the end of September dozens of people had been killed and hundreds more wounded in the capital Bangui.
"Several hundred sick children and pregnant women have been unable to reach clinics or maternity hospitals," said the regional director of ICRC operations in Africa, Patricia Danzi, in a statement.
"Thousands of families are destitute, their homes having been burnt down and their livelihoods destroyed. They are living in a constant state of fear."
ICRC urged all parties to the conflict to spare civilians, their schools, houses and medical facilities.