BANGUI: Five Chadian peacekeepers have died in clashes in the capital of the Central African Republic, where French troops Thursday were out in force a day after heavy gunfire sowed panic in the city.
The circumstances of the Chadian deaths in Bangui, which occurred on Wednesday as chaos gripped the city, were unclear, a spokesman for the African Union force of which they were part told AFP.
"Yesterday the city was in total chaos and this chaos lasted until the end of the night. Today we are trying to understand what happened," said Eloi Yao.
The Chadian contingent of the African Union peacekeeping force has been accused of siding with a mostly Muslim former rebel group in the strife-torn majority Christian country.
Top Muslim and Catholic clerics in Central African Republic pleaded for the United Nations to "immediately dispatch" extra peacekeepers to help stop the violence, which French and African forces are struggling to contain.
In an opinion column in France's Le Monde newspaper, the Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapalainga, and Imam Omar Kobine Layama, said progress by the forces "has been fragile and the troops cannot bear the burden themselves".
The arrival of UN blue helmets "will eliminate the sentiment of fear and replace it with hope", they said.
Heavy arms fire in Bangui triggered panic among residents on Wednesday, with thousands streaming to the airport, where the French and African peacekeepers are based and where tens of thousands of civilians have already sought shelter.
The clashes prompted the French force to deploy armoured vehicles near the airport.
The fighting subsided by late evening and on Thursday French peacekeepers were out in force in the streets of the capital -- still largely deserted.
Around 600 troops were on patrol, according to French Lieutenant Colonel Sebastien Pelissier, focused on the restive neighbourhoods of Gobongo, near to the airport, and Pabongo in the southern part of the city.
According to the medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders, MSF), 36 people with knife or gunshot wounds have been brought to Bangui's main hospital since Wednesday evening.
The resource-rich but impoverished country has been wracked by escalating violence since a March coup by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels installed Michel Djotodia as the country's first Muslim president.
Although Djotodia disbanded the rebels, some of them went rogue, leading to months of killing, rape and pillaging and prompting Christians to form vigilante groups in response.
A combined force of 1,600 French troops and 4,000 African Union soldiers has been struggling to restore order in the notoriously unstable nation since receiving a UN mandate in early December.
The task has been complicated by accusations that soldiers from Chad, which is mainly Muslim and which has been traditionally influential in its neighbour, have been siding with the Muslim Seleka.
The accusations have been fanned by several incidents, including one on Monday when Burundian troops in the AU force said Chadian soldiers opened fire on them as they were disarming former rebels.
The same day, Chadian peacekeepers opened fire on a stone-throwing crowd of mostly Christian protesters, killing one man and wounding around 40 more.
With tensions running high, the AU force on Wednesday said it would redeploy the Chadian contingent out of the capital to the north of the country.
According to residents reached by telephone, Wednesday's deadly clashes appear to have involved Christian vigilante groups attacking Chadian troops in the Gobongo neighbourhood.
The Chadians pushed back the attack with help from Seleka fighters, several residents told AFP.
The reports could not be confirmed with the AU force or French peacekeepers.
The Burundian peacekeepers also came under fire, they and the residents said.
"Several of our positions were attacked during the night. We pushed back the assailants without any losses to our side," the head of the Burundian contingent, Lieutenant Colonel Pontien Hakizimana, told AFP.
Early on Thursday a charred Chadian army pick-up remained on the streets in Gobongo, with a body visible inside.