By Leigh Thomas and Emmanuel Braun
PARIS/BANGUI (Reuters) - Two French soldiers were killed in overnight fighting in Central African Republic, France's first casualties in an operation to restore stability in its former colony, the French government said on Tuesday.
The country has descended into chaos since mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in March and embarked on months of looting, raping and killing. Seleka's leader, Michel Djotodia, installed as the interim president, has lost control of his loose band of fighters.
The soldiers' deaths were announced just before French President Francois Hollande's office said he would make a quick stop-over in the capital Bangui on his way back from a memorial service for the late Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
"The head of state expresses his deep respect for the two soldiers' sacrifice," his office said in a statement.
"He renews his full support for French forces alongside African forces as they restore security in the Central African republic, protect the population and guarantee access to humanitarian aid," it said.
The 1,600-strong French force battled gunmen in Bangui on Monday in an operation to disarm rival Muslim and Christian fighters responsible for killing hundreds since last week.
French officials said on Monday night they had restored some stability to Bangui although shooting had broken out when gunmen refused to hand over weapons.
The two French soldiers, marine paratroopers from the 8th Regiment based in Castres, died when they came under attack during an overnight patrol, parliament speaker Claude Bartolone told reporters.
"They were injured and quickly brought to a surgical unit, but unfortunately could not be saved," he said.
According to one African peacekeeper in Bangui, a rebel commander was harassing people, who called the French to come and help them.
"They came and tried to disarm the Seleka but gunfire erupted," the peacekeeper said.
At least 465 people have been killed in Bangui alone since Thursday, according to Red Cross officials.
Hollande began boosting the number of French troops in the country last Thursday immediately after the U.N. Security Council authorized France to use lethal force to help African peacekeepers, who have been struggling to restore order.
France has lost seven soldiers in a separate operation in Mali, where it sent troops in January to drive back militants threatening to take the capital of Bamako.
Central African Republic is rich in diamonds, gold and uranium but despite such resources, most people remain poor. The country has seen little stability in five decades and France has intervened more since independence in 1960 than in any of its former colonies.
It also lies at a crossroads of conflict in the heart of Africa, with Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia to the east, the Islamist threat in the Sahel region to the north and the revolts of the Great Lakes to the southeast.
(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier in Paris and Emmanuel Braun in Bangui; Editing by Mark John, James Regan and Angus MacSwan)