By Crispin Dembassa-Kette
BANGUI (Reuters) - Fierce fighting between militia and U.N. peacekeepers erupted in Central African Republic on Tuesday as President Catherine Samba-Panza rushed back early from the U.N. General Assembly in a bid to end days of violence in which at least 37 people died.
Samba-Panza, who has blamed ousted president Francois Bozize for stoking the violence, was pinned down in the airport on arrival in Bangui as the clashes between the anti-balaka militia and U.N. peacekeepers blocked the route to the presidency, sources at the airport said.
Reuters witnesses reported heavy gunfire in the riverside capital and said two helicopters from France's Sangaris peacekeeping mission were circling near the airport, opening fire on militia fighters.
The fighting ended an apparent lull in four days of clashes earlier on Tuesday, when troops from the 10,000-strong U.N. mission (MINUSCA) patrolled the streets of the riverside capital clearing barricades erected by militia members.
Samba-Panza said the unrest was being stoked by politicians seeking to exploit it, including Bozize, who was swept from power in the diamond-rich nation by the northern Muslim Seleka rebels in 2013.
His ousting plunged the majority Christian country into inter-religious violence in which more than 5,000 people have died. Under international pressure, Seleka handed power in January 2014 to an interim government led by Samba-Panza supposed to guide the country to elections next month.
"On the ground, we know the elements who are stirring things up, who are intrumentalizing and feeding this insecurity," Samba-Panza told France24 television, singling out Bozize as a ringleader. "We know that former dignitaries in Central African Republic want to be back in charge."
U.N. officials say the violence has driven more than 27,000 people from their homes, swelling the Mpoko camp for displaced people next to the airport. International flights have been suspended, and the offices of humanitarian organizations have been looted.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said it had treated more than 100 people since Saturday, mostly for gunshots and machete wounds.
The worst outbreak of violence this year in Bangui raised concern among U.N. officials that progress made in stabilizing the country was being rolled back ahead of a presidential election due on Oct. 18. Western diplomats say the vote is likely to be pushed back by a month at least.
"I don't think one can over-estimate the risk of this getting worse, it's clearly there," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news conference in Geneva. "This is a crucial moment for the Central African Republic."
Talks on the situation were due to take place on Thursday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
The Central African regional bloc (CEEAC) called on the United Nations to hand MINUSCA a more robust mandate to tackle violence and to ensure elections take place this year.
However, a mass breakout of some 500 inmates from the central prison on Sunday night, many of them anti-balaka members, fed fears of a increase of violence in the coming days despite the imposition of a curfew. Opposition parties have called a demonstration for Wednesday morning.
Bozize has urged the start of a political dialogue after he was barred from running the upcoming election.
"Democracy was murdered in front of everyone in Central African Republic," said Bozize, who seized power in the diamond-rich country in a 2003 coup.
Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group said that, with relations between the Christian and Muslim communities damaged by two-and-a-half years of violence, there appeared scant prospect of a return to peace in the short-term.
"We are a long way from reconciliation," he said, calling for more resources to be devoted to grass-roots dialogue.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn in Dakar, Joe Bavier in Abidjan, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and John Irish in New York; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Alison Williams)