Chad has said it will withdraw its troops from an African Union peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic, a setback to attempts to build a large international force to stem religious conflict in the impoverished country.

"Despite the sacrifices we have made, Chad and Chadians have been targeted in a gratuitous and malicious campaign that blamed them for all the suffering in CAR," Chad's foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday announcing the planned withdrawal.

Chadian soldiers have been at the heart of African efforts to stabilise CAR, but its forces have been accused of siding with the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels, whose seizure of power last year sparked tit-for-tat violence with Christian militia.

It said its troops would remain in place while the practicalities of the withdrawal were confirmed, Reuters news agency reported. There was no official reaction from France, the Central African Republic's ex-colonial master, or the AU force, known as MISCA.

However, the decision appeared to be a setback for France, which has deployed 2,000 troops in a bid to restore peace in the CAR, a landlocked nation rich in gold, diamonds and uranium that has seen little but instability since independence in 1960.

The dominant military force in the region, Chad has established itself as a key African ally for Paris and contributed roughly 850 troops to the 6,000-strong African Union peacekeeping mission.

"We have to assess the impact but for sure it won't be simple given Chad was a key player in the MISCA mission," a French diplomatic source said.

Chad came under the spotlight last weekend when at least 24 people were killed and another 100 were seriously wounded by Chadian soldiers sent to repatriate their compatriots from the mainly Christian CAR, according to officials there.

It was the worst-known incident involving foreign troops since French and African peacekeepers deployed in CAR late last year amid an upsurge of violence.

Source: Reuters