France urges UN to play bigger role in Central Africa

BANGUI (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande on Friday called on the United Nations to "play a still bigger role" in the strife-ridden Central African Republic as French troops in Bangui sought to clamp down after days of violence.

Heavy patrols of armoured vehicles and French soldiers could be seen in the capital, where more than 1,000 people are believed to have been killed in three weeks of sectarian violence.

But Mr Hollande told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a telephone conversation that France was "aiming to protect the entire Central African population from attacks against it, without distinction," his Elysee office said in a statement.

Mr Hollande asked the United Nations to "play a still bigger role" in the CAR's transition to democracy and thanked the UN chief for the world body's moves to strengthen MISCA, the African force deployed to help restore calm in the Central African Republic.

The Red Cross has said it recovered some 100 bodies in Bangui, including 20 in a mass grave, amid increased attacks this week between Christians and Muslims.

French and African troops are struggling to contain the unrest, which has wracked the majority Christian country since a March coup by mostly Muslim Seleka rebels who installed Michel Djotodia as president.

Mr Djotodia has officially disbanded Seleka, but has proved unable to control the fighters who swept him to power.

Automatic gunfire rattled central Bangui and tracer fire marked the sky overnight, and shots could be heard from the presidential palace and a nearby military camp. Presidential spokesman Guy-Simplice Kodegue said the shooting was the result of a misunderstanding between Seleka fighters and troops from the African MISCA force.

A source with MISCA said two Congolese police officers had been killed in the shooting but provided no further details. Two Chadian citizens were also wounded by stray gunfire at their nearby embassy, a diplomat said.

Confusion reigned in the capital, where heavy fighting sparked panic on Wednesday and sent thousands fleeing for shelter at the airport, the base for French and African forces. At least one civilian was killed and several children wounded Friday when Chadian soldiers threw grenades into a crowd, military and humanitarian officials said.

Much of the unrest has been blamed on Christian militias carrying out revenge attacks on Muslims after months of abuses by ex-Seleka rebels. A combined force of 1,600 French troops and 4,000 African Union soldiers is trying to restore order in the chronically unstable country after receiving a UN mandate in early December.