French peacekeeping troops in Central African Republic killed at least five gunmen after coming under attack from Muslims and Christians at two different locations in Bambari, northeast of the capital Bangui, an army spokesman said.
Seleka Muslim rebels seized power in March 2013 and their attacks on the majority Christian population set off a wave of reprisals in which thousands have been killed and about a million displaced.
The Seleka coalition was forced to relinquish power under international pressure in January, but there are still differences over the make-up of the new government, which is headed by a Muslim.
French Army spokesman Gilles Jaron said the latest violence, in which the U.N. peacekeeping force MINUSCA and the French Sangaris mission came under fire on Wednesday from automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, appeared to be criminally rather than politically motivated.
“We returned fire. We think we killed five to seven people,” Jaron said. “We found ourselves in a peculiar situation where we were attacked by what appeared to be Muslim forces to the west of the city, and anti-balaka Christian militias to the south.”
Bambari, a market town of 65,000 people, is a crossroads for traders and a starting point for journeys to Chad and Cameroon. It lies close to the dividing line between Central African Republic's largely Christian south and the Muslim-dominated north, with the Seleka forces using it as their military headquarters.
Jaron said that once the French force was able to push back the two groups, some individuals looted two international non-profit organizations, including the Red Cross.
“There weren't many of them and they did not have the support of the local population,” Jaron said. “We think it was more criminally motivated, in that the individuals want to re-establish a lawless zone.”
The Bambari region has been the scene in recent weeks of gun battles between rival factions of the Seleka rebels who control the area and are divided on whether to reconcile with the central government in Bangui.
Most Muslims have fled the south of the country to escape violence, creating a de facto partition. Some members of the Seleka leadership have pushed for this to be formalized.
Roughly 2,000 French and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers have been deployed to Central African Republic, a former French colony, but have struggled to help the weak transitional government impose its authority.