At least 15 people, including a priest, have been killed and several others wounded following an attack on a Catholic church compound in the capital by Muslim fighters, witnesses said.

Wednesday's attack at the Notre-Dame de Fatima church in central Bangui, where thousands of civilians had sought refuge, is the largest and most brazen blamed on Muslim fighters since the Seleka coalition was removed from power nearly five months ago.

"We were in the church when we heard the shooting outside,'' Reverend Freddy Mboula told the Associated Press news agency. "There were screams and after 30 minutes of gunfire there were bodies everywhere.''

Witnesses said the gunmen entered the complex, hurling grenades and shooting indiscriminately.

There were conflicting reports of how many were killed, and fighting in the area also prohibited observers from independently confirming the toll. 

Some witnesses said up to 30 people had been killed. A Reuters cameraman said he saw dozens of bodies being carried away.

The majority Christian country has been wracked by relentless clashes between Christian vigilante groups and the mainly Muslim ex-Seleka rebels who had seized power in a coup which ended in January. 

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The attack on the Church, however, marked a rare assault on a house of worship, as Catholic churches have served as sanctuaries for both Christian and Muslim civilians since the country erupted into sectarian bloodshed in December.

A 76-year-old priest, Paul-Emile Nzale, was killed in the violence near the church, Archbishop Dieudonne Mzapalainga told AFP.

"One can only feel sadness about these deaths. For several days there have been clashes in the this neighbourhood," he added.  

In the hours that followed, Christian militia fighters began putting up road blockades around Bangui.

Exchanges of gunfire continued into Wednesday night, mainly near a mainly Muslim neighbourhood of Bangui, where helicopters were seen flying over the area, an AFP reporter said.

Out of the 2,000 French soldiers deployed to CAR, 700 have been assigned to patrol the streets of Bangui in light armoured vehicles, but the city is still gripped by violence. 

The crisis in the former French colony has forced nearly one million people from their homes, and at one point nearly 100,000 sought shelter on the grounds of the Bangui airport, which has been guarded by French and now other European soldiers.

Source: Agencies