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French forces under attack in Central African Republic as disarmament effort begins

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A Christian man chases a suspected Seleka officer in civilian clothes with a knife near the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, Monday Dec. 9, 2013. Both Christian and Muslim mobs went on lynching sprees as French Forces deployed in the capital. The Seleka man was taken into custody by French forces who fired warning shots to disperse the crowds. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay) (The Associated Press)

Dozens of young men stood waiting for storm clouds to pass, as wind stirred up swirls of red dust on the 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 he was their enemy. The government of the majority Christian nation was overthrown by Muslim rebels nine months ago, setting off a wave of sectarian fighting that prompted France last week to deploy troops amid warnings its former colony is on the verge of genocide.

They descended upon the man in a frenzy. His terrified son broke away, and fled on foot, leaving his father as the knife-wielding mob clutched him.

The mob insisted he had served as a general in Seleka, the alliance of mostly Muslim rebel groups from the north that overthrew the government in March and has been accused of carrying out atrocities against Christians. Angry crowds were seen across the city on Monday, harassing those in civilian clothes who appeared to be Muslim and were suspected of being part of Seleka.

The latest round of violence began Thursday, when armed Christian fighters who oppose Seleka attacked the capital and were later repelled by the ex-rebels. At least 400 people were killed in two days.

In this case, French forces were a lifesaver for the man in the white robe. Soldiers fired 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 son was also being protected by French troops.

The French Defense Ministry said Monday that the 1,600 troops it pledged are now on the ground. 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.

President Michel Djotodia had demanded that the fighters who brought him to power remain in their barracks Monday so that French forces and African troops from a regional peacekeeping mission could secure the city.

However, he acknowledged Sunday that he has little control over the ex-Seleka fighters, who come from several different northern rebel groups. Djotodia has formally disbanded the alliance, but his fighters now see themselves as the national army.

"Even if it wasn't Djotodia, you could bring an angel from the sky to govern this country and there would still be problems," the president said.

Without police to protect them, some citizens attempted to enforce rule for themselves. In a Christian area of town, a group of men sitting on stools in the shade under a tree were chased out by a furious group of citizens who demanded they leave the street.

Passer-by Emmanuel Yakanga, 53, said he understood their frustration. 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.

Many believe the Christian militiamen are simply regrouping in the surrounding countryside to launch another attack on Bangui. Not even an hour after the Muslim man was nearly beaten to death, a Christian victim in another part of the capital nearly lost his life to a Muslim mob.

Crowds said they spotted a suspicious man as he made his way through the Kokoro 3 neighborhood.

"This guy was walking through our neighborhood with two grenades. We asked him where he was from and he couldn't tell us. The people caught him and attacked him, but then decided to turn him over to the French instead of killing him," said Ali Moussa Terab, who was standing in the crowd.

The man had pieces of cloth tied around his machete wounds on both arms, his pants soaked in blood. He said nothing and did not respond to questions as he sat alone in front of a cluster of shops. Half a dozen armed French forces kept the large crowd swirling nearby at bay.

"We are victims too! Help us as well!" one young Muslim yelled at the French as they stood guard over the bleeding man.