Gunfire and explosions rang out in the capital of Central African Republic on Thursday in fighting that has left at least eight dead and 25 wounded, the United Nations and the country's Red Cross said.
Human Rights Watch said the unrest was the most serious in months in a country where thousands have died and more than one million have fled in two years of conflict over power and resources.
Streets emptied, shops closed and youths blocked roads with barricades in unrest that appeared to center on the mainly Muslim KM-5 neighborhood. Soldiers from the French and U.N. peacekeeping mission patrolled the area, witnesses said.
The country, which is poor despite gold and diamond reserves, was plunged into chaos as mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in March 2013.
Their rule was marked by abuses that prompted a backlash from Christian and animist militia known as “anti-balaka”. France sent troops to its former colony and an existing African peacekeeping force was beefed up.
Sporadic violence has continued despite the Seleka leader's resignation from the presidency in January and the formation of a transition government led by Catherine Samba-Panza.
Anti-balaka militia are trying to take over KM-5 but are being repulsed by Muslim fighters and peacekeepers, said Mohamed Dhaffane, a vice president of former Seleka group.
“The anti-balaka are demanding the resignation of Samba-Panza. So there is a political tension on top of the security tension,” he told Reuters.
The violence began on Tuesday when a Muslim man was lynched, decapitated and torched by a mob who accused him of lobbing a grenade into a crowd. Muslims in KM-5 killed a taxi driver in revenge.
Most Muslims have fled the south of the country, creating a de facto partition and exacerbating the fears of those who remain in the capital. Some members of the Seleka leadership have pushed for the partition to be formalized.
Some 3,000 people have fled to the town of Bimbo, southwest of the capital, because of the clashes, a U.N. spokeswoman said.
“Health workers report that armed groups tried to enter the hospital there and one child was killed and another injured,” the spokeswoman said in New York.
The unrest also included two days of demonstrations outside the headquarters of the U.N. mission in the country, the spokeswoman said, adding that the head of the mission, General Babacar Gaye, condemned the violence and called for dialog.
The fighting forced the country's Red Cross branch to suspend its operations to retrieve dead and wounded. Its head, Pastor Antoine Mbao Bogo, later said seven died and 25 were wounded in the capital this week. By evening, gunfire had died down, a witness said.
To add to political tension, the two anti-balaka ministers resigned from Samba-Panza's government, heeding a call from their group to quit, an anti-balaka leader told Reuters. The group and some Seleka members have called for her to step down.
Communications Minister Antoinette Montaigne said the violence was an attempt force the president to resign.