Heavy fighting breaks out between militia, Chadian soldiers near C. African Republic airport

Heavy fighting including rocket and grenade attacks broke out Wednesday near the airport in Central African Republic's capital, sparking fear and panic in a nearby displacement camp home to some 100,000 people.

At least 10 people were wounded, including three who were critically hurt, according to Lucas Agbouko, a nurse in the capital of Bangui.

The instability also derailed a U.N. trip to the town of Bossangoa north of the capital when Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos and the head of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibe, and others could not reach the airport because of the unrest, the United Nations said.

Violence erupted Wednesday morning as a flight from Douala, Cameroon arrived in Bangui. Passengers descended the plane's stairs to the crackle of gunfire, and airport officials told the new arrivals to remain inside the airport until the area had been secured.

The exchange of fire took place between soldiers from neighboring Chad who were trying to evacuate Muslims under threat of attack, and the Christian armed fighters who have been hunting down and brutally slaying Muslim civilians in recent weeks.

Regional peacekeepers were later deployed to the area in an effort to calm the tensions, according to Col. Leon Ndong, a spokesman with the mission known as MISCA.

Members of the Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka accuse Muslims of having cooperated with a much-despised Muslim rebel government that crumbled last month amid mounting international condemnation.

"The first shots were those fired by Chadian soldiers who were escorting a convoy of people toward the Chadian capital of N'Djamena," said resident Fernand Yalimendet. "There also had been shots fired by the anti-Balaka militants who were waiting for the convoy to pass by."

The militants also had put up barricades in the road and had lit tires to protest four prior civilian deaths they had blamed on the Chadians.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has described the displacement of tens of thousands of Muslims as "ethnic-religious cleansing." And U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned that "the dark clouds of mass atrocities and sectarian cleansing loom over the Central African Republic."

More than 1,600 French troops and about 6,000 African peacekeepers are trying to stabilize highly volatile Central African Republic, which erupted into sectarian bloodshed in December when anti-Balaka militants launched an attempted coup against rebel leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia, who later resigned and went into exile the following month.


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