Central African Republic (CAR) troops battled fighters loyal to the ousted president on Monday on the second day of clashes that have killed at least 60 people, one of the deadliest outbreaks since a March coup.
The fighting erupted on Sunday near Bossangoa, some 250km north of the capital Bangui, in the home region of François Bozizé, who ruled the troubled nation for 10 years until his overthrow six months ago.
Militiamen described as Bozizé loyalists infiltrated villages around Bossangoa destroying bridges and other infrastructure and "taking revenge against the Muslim population", the presidency's spokesperson Guy-Simplice Kodegue said.
"At least 60 people were killed in these attacks," he said, without elaborating on the casualties.
Michel Djotodia, the man whose Seleka rebel group ousted Bozizé in March, was sworn in last month as the Christian-majority Central African Republic's first Muslim president.
On Monday morning, "heavy and light arms fire" were heard in the district of Bouca, on the road leading to Bossangoa, a military source in Bangui told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"That weapons fire caused people to flee in all directions," the source said.
The clashes killed at least 10 people on Sunday in Bossangoa, including two local employees of the humanitarian organisation Acted, another military source said.
The Paris-based NGO confirmed the two deaths in a statement, stressing that the pair were involved in efforts to facilitate the evacuation of civilians affected by the fighting and were clearly identifiable as aid workers.
At least four fighters from Seleka were also killed, the presidency's spokesperson said.
Bozizé, who seized power in a 2003 coup, last month said he was ready to return to power "if the opportunity presents itself".
Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that thousands of people had been displaced and at least eight villages were razed to the ground during recent violence in the north of the country.
Djotodia, who was reluctantly recognised by international institutions, heads a relatively inclusive administration but members of his Seleka group have been blamed for a litany of crimes since the coup, including executions, rape and looting.
The International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (Misca) has provided support to the army in its attempts to rein in rogue demobilised rebels.
But the under-funded force has only deployed 750 out of a planned 3 652 troops in the landlocked country roughly the size of Texas.
Some civilians fearing marauding militias and warlords are still hiding in the bush while others have been fleeing the country.
The entire territory is also grappling with a measles outbreak.
Western leaders have warned of a forgotten crisis that, if allowed to fester unchecked, risked spiralling into a major humanitarian catastrophe and turning Central Africa into a failed state.
The Central African Republic has been chronically unstable since independence from France in 1960, plagued by coups, rebellions, army mutinies and prolonged strikes by civilians.
The unrest has prevented the exploitation of resources such as uranium, gold, diamonds and oil. – AFP