Thousands seek refuge at Central African airport after clashes

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BANGUI, Central African Republic -- Thousands of Christian civilians sought refuge at an airport guarded by French soldiers Friday, fleeing from the mostly Muslim ex-rebels with machetes and guns who rule the country a day after the worst violence to hit the chaotic capital in nine months.

When several French helicopters landed at the airport, people sang with joy as they banged on plastic buckets and waved rags into the air in celebration.

Outside the barbed wire fences of the airport, bodies lay decomposing along the roads in a capital too dangerous for many to collect the corpses. Thursday's clashes left at least 280 dead, according to national radio, and have raised fears that waves of retaliatory attacks could soon follow.

"They are slaughtering us like chickens," said Appolinaire Donoboy, a Christian whose family remained in hiding.

France had pledged to increase its presence in its former colony well before Christian militias attacked the capital at dawn Thursday. The arrival of additional French troops and equipment came as the capital teetered on the brink of total anarchy and represented the greatest hope for many Central Africans.

About 1,000 French forces were expected on the ground by Friday evening, a French defense official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

A planned vote on a U.N. Security Council resolution Thursday allowed France to proceed with its mission. It coincided with the worst violence to roil the capital since March when the mostly Muslim rebels known as Seleka overthrew the president of a decade.

On Thursday, Christian militias believed to be loyal to ousted leader Francois Bozize attacked the city, and hours of gunbattles ensued. The conflict in one of Africa's poorest countries has gathered little sustained international attention since the government overthrow in March, and the dramatic developments were overshadowed Friday by global mourning for South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, who died at the age of 95.

"Thanks to France and the United Nations who want to save the Central Africans, soon the Seleka attacks on civilians will stop. We have had enough of Seleka killing, raping and stealing," said Abel Nguerefara, who lives on the outskirts of Bangui.

Streets in the city were empty Friday except for military vehicles and the trucks favored by the rebel forces who now claim control of the government.

Despite the cheers that went up when a jet engine roared overhead, France insisted it was going only reluctantly into Central African Republic and with the limited aim of doubling its presence in the country to 1,200 troops.

Still, it remains an open question how France can achieve even its limited goals in the six months allotted to the mission.

"There's a big gap between the vision France has of itself as a global power and as a power that can intervene," said Aline Leboeuf, a security and development specialist at the French Institute for International Relations. The real question, she added, is: "Can you intervene in the right way and when do you leave?"

Rebel leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia appealed for calm, even as his residence and that of the prime minister were looted and vandalized by the fighters Thursday. He announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew in hopes of preventing retaliatory violence against Christians from Muslims.


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