At least seven people have died in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), in the heaviest clashes in the city in months, the French charity Doctors Without Borders said.
The death toll was given by the charity in a brief message saying “community hospital: 65 wounded, eight dead”. Doctors Without Borders have sent a medical and surgical team to the hospital after heavy weapons fire and automatic gunfire in the city.
The blasts of heavy and small arms gunfire were heard on Thursday, hours before France said that it would deploy 1,200 troops to restore order in the CAR, which has been in sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians.
Thursday’s fighting began when automatic gunfire broke out in the north of Bangui about 5:30am (0430 GMT) and spread to other neighbourhoods in the city centre.
It is reported to be the worst since Seleka, the predominantly Muslim former rebel group, took over the city in March.
Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Bangui, said that the gunfire was still going on sporadically.
“We understand that some people have been killed, or hacked to death,” Moshiri said.
Michel Djotodia, the leader of the former rebel alliance, is now the country’s interim president but he has struggled to control his loose band of fighters, many of whom are gunmen from neighbouring Chad and Sudan. Following taking control of the capital, Seleka disintegrated into various types violence.
Al Jazeera’s Tristan Redman, reporting from Bangui, said that anti-Balakas, members of a Christian armed self-defence group, were going house to house in certain neighbourhoods looking for Seleka members.
UN vote soon
“There has been sustained gunfire and mortars in different areas of the capital,” he said.
“The fighting, as we understand it, is the worst there has been since the Seleka took over the city.”
The UN Security Council is due to meet on Thursday to discuss giving existing African Union troops and French troops a stronger mandate to operate in the CAR.
Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, told the French television channel BFMTV that about 1,200 soldiers would be deployed in the former French colony and that the intervention would begin in the coming days following the UN vote. Envoys expect the UN resolution to be passed unanimously.
Fabius also emphasised that French forces would be there as “support” for the African troops, due to total about 3,600.
His comments come one day ahead of a major summit in Paris that will gather together some 40 African leaders and is expected to be dominated by the crisis in the CAR.
The CAR is rich in gold, diamonds and uranium but decades of instability and spillover from conflicts in its larger neighbours have kept it mired in crisis.
The country has slipped into chaos since Seleka rebels seized power in March, leading to tit-for-tat sectarian violence.