France’s president has arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR) to meet the French troops deployed there and hold talks with the interim president of the troubled former colony.
Apart from holding talks with the CAR president Catherine Samba Panza, Francois Hollande will also meet religious leaders during a brief stopover in the capital Bangui on his way back from Nigeria, where he is attending a security conference with African leaders.
It is the second time that the French president has visited the CAR since he ordered a force now numbering 2,000 troops into the country in December to stem sectarian violence.
Hollande’s visit comes amid reports that hundreds of Muslims have sought refuge in a Catholic Church in the town of Carnot following the killing of at least 70 people in the country’s remote southwest.
The Muslims fled to the church after Christian fighters known as the anti-Balaka attacked Guen, about 100km away, earlier this month, said Father Rigobert Dolongo, a Catholic priest.
Dolongo told the Associated Press news agency on Monday that he helped bury the bodies of those killed.
At least 27 people were slain in the first day of the attack, while 43 others were killed on the second day, he said.
Ibrahim Aboubakar, 22, said the anti-Balaka stormed Guen and killed his two older brothers after they were heard speaking in Arabic.
“Later that day they rounded up dozens of people and forced them all to lie down on their stomachs. Then they shot them one by one,” he said from the church.
Those Muslims still in Guen appealed by telephone for African peacekeepers in Carnot to rescue them, according to two Muslim residents who insisted on anonymity because they feared for their lives.
They also confirmed that the heavily armed anti-Balaka were still in control of the village on Tuesday.
However, the local commander for the peacekeeping mission said he needed permission from his supervisors in Bangui to go to Guen.
His comments came as the head of France’s peacekeeping mission in the republic denied claims by rights groups of ethnic cleansing, but admitted that Muslims were under “intense pressure”.
General Francisco Soriano, the head of France’s Sangaris force deployed in December, told Europe 1 Radio that while some Muslims “are scared and some have been displaced, others have remained and are protected by other communities”.