BANGUI, Central African Republic: France's defence minister Tuesday urged rival factions in the Central African Republic to reach a truce as peacekeepers reported fresh fighting that left 20 civilians dead in the strife-torn country.
"There is no future for the Central African Republic if there is no ceasefire" between mainly Muslim former rebels and mostly Christian vigilantes, both accused of atrocities against civilians, Jean-Yves Le Drian said over state radio.
The defence minister was forced to call off a planned Tuesday stop in the south-central town of Bambari after a peacekeeping official said fighters of the mainly Muslim Seleka coalition had killed 20 civilians sheltering at Catholic Church facilities in the town.
Another 25 people were wounded in the attack Monday evening, said the official with the African Union force in the former French colony, who requested anonymity.
"The assailants torched tents and opened fire on the civilians who were there. The toll is still provisional and could rise because the humanitarian workers don't have an easy task on the ground where gunfire could still be heard this morning," he said.
The impoverished country of some 4.5 million has seen more than a year of unrest, with tit-for-tat violence between the former rebels and vigilantes claiming thousands of lives and displacing about a quarter of the population.
The Seleka said that in Monday's attack they were targeting Christian vigilantes they believed were sheltering among the civilians and that it was in reprisal for a June 23 attack that killed 17.
"There have been more provocations and attacks by the anti-balaka (Christians) since their (June 23) attack," said Seleka military spokesman Ahmad Nejad, referring to the attack on a camp near Bambari.
Le Drian said that in Bangui itself, the presence of French and African troops and European peacekeepers "has enabled security to become almost good. Almost good. I see this clearly during successive trips."
"Hatred and vengeance"
But he noted that the situation in the east of the former French colony "remains tense" and stressed the need to prevent "clashes between groups who look only for hatred and vengeance."
The latest unrest in the chronically unstable nation began in March 2013 when the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel coalition toppled the regime of president Francois Bozize and put Michel Djotodia -- the country's first Muslim leader -- in power.
Djotodia stepped down last January under strong international pressure for his failure to rein in rogue ex-rebels, who relentlessly murdered, raped and looted civilians.
In response, largely Christian communities formed "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) vigilante forces who ruthlessly hunted down and killed or mutilated Muslims.
Shortly before Le Drian arrived on Monday, several people were killed in attacks by both sides in the centre and north of the country, according to security sources, who said 34 Muslims were wounded by a grenade hurled into a mosque.
"These groups must accept a peace process. They need first to accept the ceasefire that is indispensable to peaceful development in the country," Le Drian said.
Paris last December began to deploy troops of the 2,000-strong Operation Sangaris, operating alongside more than 6,000 soldiers in an international force raised by the African Union known as MISCA. In April, a European Union force began to arrive in Bangui.
Before he left for Bangui, Le Drian told AFP that "the settlement ... can only be political, yet politics has broken down."
He added that he intended to talk with transitional President Catherine Samba Panza about restoring "a security chain" of police, the judiciary and prisons, arguing that "we're dealing more with criminal groups than with soldiers".
Le Drian had lengthy private talks late Monday with Samba Panza, who was named by parliament in February.