BANGUI, Central African Republic -- Wielding rifles and machetes, armed Christian fighters who support the Central African Republic's exiled president assaulted the capital at dawn Thursday, leaving nearly 100 people dead.
The ambush on Muslim neighborhoods of Bangui came as the United Nations voted to send a contingent of French troops to try to stabilize the country, and French President Francois Hollande announced plans to double the force. The daylong gunbattle touched even the most protected parts of the capital, including the residence of the prime minister, underscoring the volatile mix of arms and ideology facing the arriving French force.
Scores died in Thursday's attack, including 48 people whose bodies were laid out at a mosque in a northern suburb of Bangui. Separately, a Doctors Without Borders spokeswoman, Amelie Ketoff, said another 50 deaths had been confirmed, bringing the toll to 98.
Some died of bullet wounds, others from what appeared to be machete blows using a weapon known in the local language as a "balaka." The Christian militia, whose members are believed to have led the attack Thursday, call themselves the "anti-balaka," reminiscent of the horrific violence once seen in Rwanda.
Rebel leader-turned-President Michel Djotodia appealed for calm, even as his residence was looted and vandalized by the fighters. He announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew in a bid to stem the threat of retaliatory violence against Christians, following the early morning attack on Muslim neighborhoods.
"This morning the enemies of Central African Republic wanted to destabilize the country, but they have failed," Mr. Djotodia announced in a speech broadcast in the Sango language on state radio.
France already has hundreds of soldiers in Bangui, and an armored personnel carrier and other military vehicles patrolled the streets. The roads were otherwise bare except for the brightly painted pickup trucks driven by the ex-rebels who run the government.
The resolution passed Thursday by the U.N. Security Council allows France to send hundreds more troops for a temporary period. Speaking from the Elysee Palace in Paris, Mr. Hollande said the 600 troops already in the country would be doubled "within a few days, even a few hours" to around 1,200.
The U.N. measure also authorizes the deployment of an African Union-led force to Central African Republic for a year to protect civilians and restore public order. The AU force is replacing a regional peacekeeping mission whose presence has been mainly limited to the capital and a few northern cities.
"It's necessary to intervene very quickly to establish order in this country, in order that humanitarian aid arrives and to avoid an actual civil war based on religion," said France's U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, speaking on French RTL radio Thursday.
Central African Republic, a desperately poor country in the heart of Africa where the life expectancy is a mere 48 years, has been roiled by rebellions and coups for decades. The president ousted in March, Francois Bozize, had himself ascended to power by force a decade earlier.
Mr. Djotodia, the country's current ruler, who is Muslim, managed to unify several rebel groups in the country's mostly Muslim north.