BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Fighting came to the capital of the Central African Republic on Thursday, leaving dozens of casualties and posing the biggest threat yet to the new government just as the U.N. Security Council is set to vote on deploying an intervention force to prevent a bloodbath.
At least 16 people were killed and 45 were wounded, said Sylvain Groulx of Doctors Without Borders. There could be many more bodies though. Groulx said the death toll consisted only of bodies taken to two hospitals in Bangui.
Thursday's fighting was the most significant attack since a rebel coalition called Seleka seized power in March and marked the first time Seleka opponents have attacked multiple parts of the capital simultaneously.
The homes of the president and prime minister were looted. People scurried indoors, including some who sought sanctuary inside a church. By afternoon, the streets were empty of all but military vehicles and the four-wheel-drive pickup trucks favored by the rebel soldiers who in March claimed control of the government.
The fighting was between the mostly Muslim fighters who now control the impoverished nation and Christians who support its ousted president. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has warned that the country is on "the verge of genocide."
Hours after fighting broke out, Central African Republic's president, who was installed by Seleka earlier this year, said the clashes were over.
Inside a Bangui hospital, dozens of people with gunshot wounds lay on the floor or on wooden benches, waiting for hours to see a physician.
In New York, the United Nations Security Council was set on Thursday to authorize troops from African nations and former colonial power France to deploy here. An attack earlier this week, blamed on Christian fighters, killed nearly a dozen women and children in a remote community.
Fabius said military intervention would unfold swiftly after the U.N. vote, telling BFM-TV that the French deployment would total around 1,200, with 600 troops already in place.
"We have to end this humanitarian catastrophe and restore security," Fabius said.
Prime Minister Nicholas Tiangaye confirmed his house had been looted, describing the attackers as a group of Seleka who arrived in three four-wheel-drive pickup trucks.
"It's true, my house was attacked and pillaged," he said, adding that his family was evacuated beforehand and were safe.
Babacar Gaye, the U.N. special representative for the Central African Republic, appealed for calm in a joint statement from the U.N., European Union, African Union and France.
Seleka is an unlikely group of allies who united a year ago with the goal of forcing President Francois Bozize from the presidency after a decade in power. After thousands of rebels besieged Bangui in March, Bozize fled and the insurgents installed their leader Michel Djotodia as president.
Djotodia has increasingly sought to distance himself from Seleka which has been blamed for scores of atrocities in Bangui, killing and raping civilians and stealing from aid groups and orphanages. He has even less control in the distant provinces where anger over Seleka human rights abuses fueled the formation of the Christian anti-balaka movement several months ago. Balaka means "machete."
While the anti-balaka fighters include villagers defending their communities against Seleka attacks with artisanal hunting rifles and machetes, the group is believed to be receiving support Bozize allies. The anti-balaka fighters also have been implicated in massacres on Muslim civilian populations, which also have suffered under the Seleka regime and say they are being unfairly blamed for Seleka's wanton destruction.
The death toll has been impossible to estimate in Central African Republic, a lawless and desperately poor country in the heart of Africa where many roads have not been repaved since independence from France in 1960.
The U.N. Security Council resolution would authorize the deployment of an African Union-led force to Central African Republic for a year to protect civilians and restore security and public order. The AU force is replacing a regional peacekeeping mission whose presence has been mainly limited to the capital and a few northern cities.
The U.N. resolution also would authorize French forces, for a temporary period, "to take all necessary measures" to support the AU-led force known as MISCA, whose troop numbers are expected to rise from about 2,500 to 3,500.
AP reporters Lori Hinnant and Sylvie Corbet contributed reporting from Paris.