By Daniel Flynn
BAMBARI, Central African Republic (Reuters) - At least one man was killed on Thursday in clashes that erupted after French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic tried to disarm Muslim rebels, witnesses and hospital staff said.
A spokesman for the rebels told Reuters the troops opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing three civilians and wounding at least six. It was not possible to independently verify his claim.
A French military official denied troops killed civilians and said they fired warning shots in the air after coming under fire in Bambari, the headquarters of the mostly-Muslim rebel Seleka coalition, which controls the northeast of the country.
A Reuters witness saw four people wounded, including one seriously hurt by gunshots that appeared to come from French forces deployed in the "Sangaris" peacekeeping operation.
Following a meeting on Wednesday, the peacekeeping troops had demanded that members of the Seleka hand over weapons.
Crowds of civilians carrying machetes and hunting rifles took to the streets early on Thursday in protest and blocked roads in the center of Bambari with market stalls and furniture.
Mahamat Nour Hassan Ibrahim, 31, said a French soldier on an armored vehicle opened fire on the crowd.
Ibrahim said he was shot in his left leg and his 21-year-old brother Mohamed Hassan Ibrahim shot dead. Hospital staff said one body was brought to the hospital after the protest.
"We only want peace. Since the Sangaris arrived in the town, we have been traumatized," Ibrahim said from his hospital bed. "We do not need the Sangaris here."
Muslims in Bambari are unwilling to disarm after similar moves in the capital Bangui led to attacks on Muslims there.
"There were two deaths and a third person who was seriously wounded has now died," said Seleka spokesman Ahmad Nijad Ibrahim. "Christians and Muslims were living peacefully here. It is the French who have created this violence."
French forces shut off the main road leading southwest from Bambari to Bangui as a precautionary measure.
"International forces are in Bambari to apply confidence-building measures which forbid armed groups from circulating with their weapons in the town," said a French military official who declined to be named.
The town was still tense at nightfall and occasional gunshots could be heard. Fires burned at barricades and people walked around armed with bows and arrows and machetes.
The former French colony descended into chaos after Seleka rebels seized power in March last year and their attacks on the majority Christian population set off a wave of revenge attacks.
The coalition was forced to relinquish power under international pressure in January. Since then, Christian militias known as "anti-balaka" have mounted widespread attacks on Muslims.
More than 2,000 people have been killed in the violence and a million of the country's 4.5 million people have been forced from their homes despite the presence of several thousand African peacekeepers and European Union and French troops.
(Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Andrew Roche)