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C. African Republic mobs launch sectarian attacks

Monday - 12/9/2013, 9:02pm  ET

A French soldier screams at mobs of Christians attacking suspected Seleka members before firing warning shots near the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday Dec. 9, 2013. Both Christian and Muslim mobs went on lynching sprees as French Forces deploy in the capital. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Associated Press

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) -- Dozens of young men stood waiting for storm clouds to pass, as wind stirred up swirls of red dust on the largely deserted street in Central African Republic's capital. Through the drizzle, they spotted a man in a flowing white robe traditionally worn by Muslims, hand-in-hand with his adolescent son.

The style of dress was enough to confirm that this was their enemy.

Hungry for revenge, the crowd descended upon the pair. The man's terrified son broke away, and fled on foot, abandoning his father as the knife-wielding mob clutched the middle-aged man.

Muslim rebels known as Seleka overthrew the government of this majority Christian nation nine months ago, sparking mounting sectarian violence that prompted former colonizer France last week to deploy troops to Bangui in an effort to stop the bloodshed.

In a city where more than 400 people died last week in two days of tit-for-tat violence between Christians and Muslims, it was clear Monday there is still enough pent-up rage left that a crowd will try to kill a man on sight.

The angry mob insisted their victim served as a general in the rebel movement accused of carrying out atrocities against the nation's Christian population, including tying victims together and throwing them off bridges to drown. "Seleka! Seleka! Seleka!" screamed the men as they encircled the Muslim man in a tornado of anger.

In this case, French forces intervened just in time, firing into the air as a warning. "I am a merchant! I am a merchant!," the man cried as the French pulled him away, his back covered in dirt and his gown ripped off. His tearful son came back, his white shirt covered in blood, and the French ferried them to safety.

Other Muslims were not as fortunate. In the Benzvi neighborhood, a mob descended upon two ex-Seleka leaders leaving their home Monday afternoon. One got away. The crowd took up the only weapons they had against the other, witnesses said.

"People picked up rocks from the ground and stoned him to death," said Junior Dagdag, 28, pointing to the pool of blood and stones in the middle of the road, where the victim's car burned and smoke plumed into the sky. "Some brought his body to the hospital while others set his car on fire."

The latest round of violence began Thursday, when armed Christian fighters who oppose the ex-Seleka forces in power attacked the capital and were later repelled by the ex-rebels.

The French ambassador to the U.N., Gerard Araud, said a "modicum of law and order" had been restored in Bangui. Some 1,600 French forces are on the ground.

On Monday, they set about the work of disarming the rebels and the militias that have sprung up to counter them. Col. Gilles Jaron, a French military spokesman in Paris, said all armed groups on the ground have been told that only police and gendarmes are allowed to carry arms and wear uniforms. Seleka rebels have been told to return to their barracks in central Bangui and leave their arms there. Anyone still roaming the streets with a weapon will be disarmed, Jaron said.

He would not say how long the process would take.

During the day, French helicopters buzzed overhead while dozens of military vehicles, including armored personnel carriers, snaked through neighborhoods where tensions ran high. French forces came under attack near the airport but the area was later secured.

In Washington, the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the U.S. Africa Command to begin transporting 850 troops from Burundi in coordination with France because the U.S. believes immediate action is needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

Since the country has no police and no real national army, fed-up Christians sought to enforce the law themselves, chasing anyone they suspected as being part of Seleka -- even in civilian clothing -- off of the streets.

Emmanuel Yakanga, 53, a Christian, said he walked by a group of Christians harassing some men they accused of being Seleka and that he understands their anger. Even as ex-Seleka elements promised to disarm and hand over their weapons to the French, Christian neighborhoods are coming under attack nightly, he said. Yakanga's 17-year-old niece was fatally shot on Thursday, he said.

"This talk of disarmament is merely superficial. They're just going to keep their weapons elsewhere," Yakanga said of the ex-Seleka.

In the months since he seized power, it has become clear that President Michel Djotodia wields little control over the rebels who now see themselves as the country's national army. Over the weekend, Djotodia acknowledged his lack of power, telling reporters that not even "an angel from the sky" could govern his troubled nation now.

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