2 French soldiers die in Central African Republic

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) - Two French soldiers have been killed in combat in Central African Republic's capital, President Francois Hollande's office announced on Tuesday, underscoring the challenges of a new French military intervention in the nearly lawless former colony.

Hollande plans to visit the Central African Republic later Tuesday, heading into the tricky conflict zone after attending a memorial in South Africa for Nelson Mandela.

The early casualties underscore the volatility of the mission to disarm combatants and bring stability to a largely anarchic capital. A mob on Monday stoned to death a suspected enemy in the street, and armed fighters have abducted and killed hospital patients.

Tensions flared again on Tuesday as a mob of young men set fire to a mosque in the Fou neighbourhood of the capital, Bangui. Smoke billowed from smouldering vehicles nearby, and young men used pick axes and whatever tools they could find to try to tear down the walls of the mosque.

The government of Central African Republic, a predominantly Christian country, was overthrown in March by Muslim rebels from the country's north. While the rebels claimed no religious motive for seizing power, months of resentment and hostility erupted last week in a wave of violence that left more than 400 people dead.

France now has some 1,600 troops on the ground in Central African Republic, patrolling neighbourhoods and trying to disarm militants from the Seleka rebel movement that forced the president into exile and installed their own leader Michel Djotodia as head of state.

The two French troops were part of a team inspecting a neighbourhood 1,200 meters east of Bangui's airport close to midnight Monday, in preparation for a disarmament operation, French military spokesman Colonel Gilles Jaron said in Paris.

Five to 10 gunmen opened fire on the French patrol, which returned fire, he said. Two Frenchmen were wounded and taken to the hospital where they died. It was unclear whether anyone else died in the clash.

Jaron described "sporadic fire" around Bangui and occasional clashes since the French disarmament efforts got under way on Monday.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.