France's military says Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has arrived on a surprise visit, within hours of a gunfight in the chaotic capital that drew French troops into a neighborhood rife with sectarian tensions.

His arrival Friday comes amid continued unrest in the capital, Bangui. France is deploying 1,600 soldiers to bolster regional African peacekeepers, trying to stabilize the country after more than 500 people died last week.

The impoverished country has descended into near-anarchy since March, when rebel groups overthrew the government. French forces trying to disarm Bangui face backlash from residents terrified to give up weapons they could use to defend themselves.

Early Friday, French forces traded fire with suspected ex-rebels holed up in a volatile neighborhood. Violence erupted after the overnight death of a Christian taxi driver.