Christians fearing reprisal attacks from the Muslim ex-rebels who control the Central African Republic fled on foot by the thousands Saturday, as others ventured outside for the first in time in days, only to bury their dead after the worst violence to rack the lawless country in months.
French armoured personnel carriers and troops from the regional African peacekeeping mission roared at high speed down the roads of the capital, Bangui, as families carrying palm fronds pushed coffins in carts on the road's shoulder. In a sign of the mounting tensions, others walking briskly on the streets carried bow-and-arrows and machetes.
Former coloniser France has deployed more than 1,000 troops in the country in an effort to stabilise a crisis that the French foreign minister has warned is "on the verge of genocide". The local Red Cross says it has gathered over 280 bodies in recent days, although the perilous security had made it impossible to access some of the hardest-hit areas.
Overnight, French reinforcements entered the Central African Republic by road from Cameroon to the west, as others ventured northward out of Bangui for the first time since the UN Security Council on Thursday authorised a more muscular international military role to quell the violence, said Col Gilles Jaron, a French military spokesman in Paris.
France now has 1,200 troops in the country, completing plans to double its deployment since Thursday, he said, declining to specify where the new forces were headed beyond the capital. Hundreds are conducting 24-hour patrols in Bangui.
France is raising its troop deployment in the Central African Republic to 1,600 – 400 more than initially planned, president Francois Hollande said.
Mr Hollande told reporters that the 1,600-strong deployment would remain as long as necessary for its mission to help stabilise the country.
He also said the French troops would fan out as quickly and broadly as possible in the African country.
Aid workers ventured back out into the streets yesterday to collect bloated bodies that had lain uncollected in the heat since Thursday, when Christian fighters known as the anti-balaka who oppose the country's ruler descended on the capital in a co-ordinated attack on several, mostly Muslim, neighbourhoods.
Residents of Christian neighbourhoods said the ex-rebels known as Seleka later carried out reprisal attacks, going house-to-house in search of alleged combatants and firing at civilians who merely strayed into the wrong part of town.
Most of the displaced in the Central African Republic's capital are Christian, as the ex-Seleka have not targeted Muslim neighbourhoods. However, anger over the Seleka attacks has prompted vicious reprisals on Muslim civilians in other parts of the country. Nearly a dozen Muslim women and children were slain less than a week ago, just outside the capital, in an attack blamed on the Christian fighters.
The Central African Republic, one of the world's poorest countries, has been wracked for decades by coups and rebellions. In March, Seleka overthrew the Christian president of a decade, Francois Bozize. At the time, religious ideology played little role in their power grab. The rebels soon installed their leader Michel Djotodia as president, though he exerted little control over forces on the ground.
The rebels are blamed for scores of atrocities since taking power, tying civilians together and throwing them off bridges to drown and burning entire villages to the ground. Anger over the Seleka abuses translated into a backlash against Muslim civilians, who make up only about 15 per cent of the population.
An armed Christian movement has arisen in response to the Seleka attacks, and it is widely believed to be supported by former members of the national army loyal to ousted president Bozize.