Thousands flee in fear to Bangui airport

View photos
Shrouded bodies lay in a mosque in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday Dec. 5 2013 following a day-long gun battle between Seleka soldiers and Christian militias. Over 40 bodies, civilian and some military, have been brought for funeral preparations. Gunfire and mortar rounds erupted in the town, leaving scores dead and wounded. To try to put an end to sectarian violence, the UN security council passed a motion allowing French troops to deploy in the country in order to protect civilians and insure security by all necessary means. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Thousands of people crowded into a field outside Central African Republic's main airport on Friday, hoping that French soldiers would protect them after a spasm of bloodshed in the lawless capital left more than 100 people dead.

With the capital of Bangui hovering at the edge of anarchy, French military reinforcements — including a fighter jet, helicopters, parachutists and armored vehicles — rumbled their way into one of the world's poorest countries.

Streets in the city were empty except for military vehicles and the trucks favored by rebel forces who now claim control of the government. Nine unclaimed bodies sprawled in front of the parliament building Friday — local Red Cross workers didn't dare retrieve them or other bodies that were left to decay outside.

There was no repeat of the clashes Thursday that left more than 100 people dead in Bangui when Christian militias raided Muslim neighborhoods. Still it remained an open question how France can achieve even its limited goals in the six months allotted to the mission.

Muslim rebels have run rampant in Central African Republic after toppling the president in March, fighting against Christian militias who back the ousted leader. The capital remains awash in weapons and recent attempts at disarmament have yielded little success.

Despite the cheers that went up Friday when jet engines roared overhead, France insisted it was going only reluctantly into Central African Republic and with limited aims for an expected force of 1,200.

"You have to secure, you have to disarm," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Radio France Internationale. "You have to ensure that the vandals, the bandits, the militias know they can't use the streets of Bangui for their battles."

Le Drian said French forces protecting the airport opened fire Thursday on a rebel pickup truck bearing down on them, killing several men inside. He described the shooting as "legitimate defense."

The British government was flying in military equipment Friday to Central African Republic on a C-17 plane to help with France's intervention.


Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley and Sylvie Corbet contributed from Paris.