BANGUI, Central African Republic -- Assailants armed with heavy weapons attempted late Thursday to attack the presidential palace as well as the residence of the Central African Republic's embattled leader but were pushed back, officials said.
Reached by phone, Guy Simplice, spokesman for President Michel Djotodia, said there had been heavy fighting near the seat of government, before the army was able to block the aggressors. Although the attackers could not immediately be identified, for weeks there have been rumors that a Christian militia -- believed to be backed by the former president, who was ousted by Mr. Djotodia in a coup nine months ago -- would attempt to seize back power.
The heavy-arms fire could be heard from the Hotel Ledger, near the center of town, where international journalists are staying. A rocket came over the hotel's wall, landing on the hotel grounds. As the shooting died down, helicopters could be heard flying overhead.
The events are only the latest indicating that this deeply poor but, until recently, relatively stable nation is tipping into anarchy. Earlier Thursday, international forces were sent to pick up truckloads of decomposing bodies of slain Muslims, whose remains had been left at a local mosque by friends and relatives too frightened to be seen burying them in a city where Christian-on-Muslim and Muslim-on-Christian attacks have become a daily occurrence.
It also comes a day after the African Union lost six peacekeepers, who were attacked in the capital's Gobongo neighborhood. Their destroyed car, with at least one calcified body still inside, had not been removed a day later, underscoring how dangerous this chaotic country has become, even for international forces tasked with pacifying it, African Union spokesman Eloi Yao said.
As the African Union was struggling to secure that crime scene, they discovered another: Close to the presidential palace, peacekeepers found a mass grave. "We found around 20 bodies in a state of decomposition in an area that we call Panthers' Hill. The 20 were scattered in different graves in a small area. You found five bodies in one hole, three in another, two in yet another and so on," Mr. Yao said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "appalled" by the continuing inter-communal violence, including reports Thursday of dozens more bodies found on the streets of Bangui, and called on the transitional authorities "to rein in those fomenting and perpetrating the violence," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
The U.N. chief welcomed appeals for peace by Christian and Muslim leaders, reiterated that those responsible for atrocities must be held accountable, and expressed sadness at the deaths of the six peacekeepers and a U.N. national staff member, Mr. Nesirky said.