BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Thousands of Christian civilians sought refuge at an airport guarded by French soldiers Friday, fleeing from the mostly Muslim ex-rebels with machetes and guns who rule the country a day after the worst violence to hit the chaotic capital in nine months.
When several French helicopters landed at the airport, people sang with joy as they banged on plastic buckets and waved rags into the air in celebration.
Outside the barbed wire fences of the airport, bodies lay decomposing along the roads in a capital too dangerous for many to collect the corpses. Thursday's clashes left at least 280 dead, according to national radio, and have raised fears that waves of retaliatory attacks could soon follow.
"They are slaughtering us like chickens," said Appolinaire Donoboy, a Christian whose family remained in hiding.
France had pledged to increase its presence in its former colony well before Christian militias attacked the capital at dawn Thursday. The arrival of additional French troops and equipment came as the capital teetered on the brink of total anarchy and represented the greatest hope for many Central Africans.
About 1,000 French forces were expected to be on the ground by Friday evening, a French defense official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
As night fell across the near anarchic capital, Christians fearing retaliatory attacks by the mostly Muslim ex-rebels crowded as close to the runway as possible, laying out their woven mats in front of a barbed wire coiled fence. National radio announced that at least 280 people had died, citing figures from local Red Cross officials.
The U.S. State Department said it was "deeply concerned" by the violence and praised France's quick intervention.
France signaled its amped up presence in its former colony on Friday by sending out armored vehicles to patrol the streets. A French fighter jet made several flyovers, roaring through the sky over an otherwise lifeless capital as civilians cowered at home. Britain also flew in a C-17 plane Friday loaded with equipment to help with France's intervention.
As many as 250 French troops are carrying out permanent patrols in Bangui, and "we didn't notice any direct clashes between armed groups today," said French military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron in Paris.
On Thursday, however, 10 armed attackers in a pickup truck fired on a French position at the airport, including with a rocket-propelled grenade whose charge did not detonate. French forces returned fire, killing four attackers and wounding six, Jaron said.
A planned vote on a U.N. Security Council resolution Thursday allowed France to proceed with its mission. It coincided with the worst violence to roil the capital since March when the mostly Muslim rebels known as Seleka overthrew the president of a decade.
On Thursday, Christian militias believed to be loyal to ousted leader Francois Bozize attacked the city, and hours of gunbattles ensued. The conflict in one of Africa's poorest countries has gathered little sustained international attention since the government overthrow in March, and the dramatic developments were overshadowed Friday by global mourning for South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, who died at the age of 95.
"Thanks to France and the United Nations who want to save the Central Africans, soon the Seleka attacks on civilians will stop. We have had enough of Seleka killing, raping and stealing," said Abel Nguerefara, who lives on the outskirts of Bangui.
Streets in the city were empty Friday except for military vehicles and the trucks favored by the rebel forces who now claim control of the government. Nine unclaimed bodies lay sprawled in front of the parliament building alone — local Red Cross workers didn't dare retrieve them, or other bodies that were left to decay outside.
Despite the cheers that went up when a jet engine roared overhead, France insisted it was going only reluctantly into Central African Republic and with the limited aim of doubling its presence in the country to 1,200 troops.
Still, it remains an open question how France can achieve even its limited goals in the six months allotted to the mission.
"There's a big gap between the vision France has of itself as a global power and as a power that can intervene," said Aline Leboeuf, a security and development specialist at the French Institute for International Relations.
The real question, she added, is: "Can you intervene in the right way and when do you leave?"
Rebel leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia appealed for calm, even as his residence and that of the prime minister were looted and vandalized by the fighters Thursday. He announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew in hopes of preventing retaliatory violence against Christians from Muslims.
In a speech broadcast Thursday in the Sango language and a television interview in French, Djotodia called on people to realize that French forces were not in Central African Republic to take sides in an increasingly sectarian conflict.
Djotodia, who is Muslim, unified rebel groups in the country's mostly Muslim north, where resentment of the federal government and a sense of disenfranchisement has been rife for years. Yet once those rebels were unleashed upon the capital, he wielded very little control over the mix of bush fighters, child soldiers and foreign mercenaries he had recruited.
Supporters of the ousted president formed self-defense militias such as those behind Thursday's attack, which came hours before the U.N. Security Council voted to authorize the French deployment.
"We're appreciative of France, but we know that 50 years after our independences, France is again required to come in as a fireman to save us — it's not right," said Alpha Conde, president of Guinea. "It's a humiliation for Africa that 50 years afterward, we are not at all able to manage our problems ourselves."
France's military, which controls Bangui airport, said about 2,000 Central Africans took refuge there Thursday, most if not all of them Christian. The crowd swelled on Friday.
Yves Wayina, 26, fled with his wife and six children.
"France must come and rapidly deploy and do everything possible to save us," he told the AP on Friday.
He's not sure whether he can go back and live among Muslims. Too much has happened. Too many attacks by the Seleka, which include foreign mercenaries among their ranks.
"We are angry," he said through the fence keeping civilians away from the airport runway. "The Muslims should go back where they came from."
Lori Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Jose Richard Pouambi in Bangui, Central African Republic; Jamey Keaten, Elaine Ganley and Sylvie Corbet in Paris; and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.
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