BANGUI, Central African Republic - More than 500 people have been killed over the last week in sectarian fighting in Central African Republic, aid officials said Tuesday, as France reported that gunmen killed two of its soldiers who were part of the intervention to disarm thousands of rebels accused of attacking civilians.
Aid workers have collected 461 bodies across Bangui, the capital, since Thursday, said Antoine Mbao Bogo of the local Red Cross. But that latest figure does not include the scores of Muslim victims whose bodies were brought to mosques for burial.
The government of the predominantly Christian country was overthrown in March by Muslim rebels from the country's north. While the rebels claimed no religious motive for seizing power, months of resentment and hostility erupted last week in a wave of violence.
The French deaths came as French President Francois Hollande arrived for a visit to France's former colony, heading into the tumultuous capital after attending a memorial in South Africa for Nelson Mandela.
"The mission is dangerous. We know it," Hollande told troops in a huge airport hangar after paying respects at the coffins of the two young soldiers. "But it is necessary in order to avoid carnage."
President Michel Djotodia condemned the attack on the French forces and blamed former leader Francois Bozize, whom he ousted from power in March, for creating the turmoil now being unleashed on the streets of Bangui. About 100,000 people have been forced from their homes, aid officials say.
An anarchic capital
The early French casualties underscore the volatility of the mission to disarm combatants and bring stability to a largely anarchic capital. A mob on Monday stoned to death a suspected enemy, and armed fighters have abducted and killed hospital patients.
Tensions flared again Tuesday as a mob of young men set fire to a mosque in the Fou neighborhood of Bangui. Smoke billowed from vehicles nearby, and young men used pick axes and whatever tools they found to try to tear down the walls of the mosque.
Elsewhere, citizens killed three suspected ex-rebels in the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui after the men apparently fired weapons at civilians, residents said.
France now has about 1,600 troops on the ground in Central African Republic, patrolling neighborhoods and trying to disarm militants from the Seleka rebel movement that forced the president into exile and installed their own leader Michel Djotodia as head of state.