By Paul-Marin Ngoupana
BANGUI (Reuters) - Thousands of civilians fled to the Central African Republic's main international airport to escape marauding former rebel fighters and occupied the tarmac for around 18 hours, blocking some flights from landing, witnesses and officials said.
The Central African Republic has descended into chaos since the Seleka rebels swept into Bangui in March, toppling President Francois Bozize and unleashing a wave of violence that new leader Michel Djotodia has failed to control.
Residents of the Boeing quarter adjacent to the capital's M'poko airport began fleeing their homes on Tuesday night after Seleka fighters starting shooting up their neighborhood.
Peacekeepers present at the airport intervened on Wednesday, firing water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowd after some protesters began throwing stones at them. By late afternoon the runway had been cleared, government officials and peacekeepers said.
"There were no deaths, just a few wounded. But the situation is under control," new security and public order minister Josue Binoua told Reuters, adding that flights into the capital were expected to resume on Thursday.
The occupation of the airport kept several flights, including one run by Morocco's national carrier Royal Air Maroc, from landing.
A senior officer with the Central African regional peacekeeping mission based at the airport said the thousands of civilians who fled there overnight had refused to leave the tarmac.
"They came here because they are afraid," he said. The peacekeepers were forced to intervene to stop Seleka fighters from entering, he said.
Residents of the Boeing neighborhood said that what started as an evacuation had become a protest against the state of lawlessness.
"Our presence here at the airport has one goal - to get the world's attention. Because we are fed up with these Seleka," said Antoine Gazama.
Seleka, a grouping of five rebel movements that Djotodia used to lead, has repeatedly raided rural villages and Bangui neighborhoods under the pretext of searching for weapons caches and armed Bozize loyalists.
Human rights groups say they are responsible for widespread looting, torture and summary executions.
French President Francois Hollande called on the U.N. Security Council and the African Union on Tuesday to stabilize the situation in the Central African Republic, warning that it was at risk of going the way of Somalia.
The security minister said the airport occupation forced Djotodia to call an emergency meeting during which the government decided to ban Seleka from entering Bangui neighborhoods.
"Only the forces of order, notably the police and gendarmes, are authorized to ensure and reestablish order in the country and particularly in the city of Bangui," Binoua said.
Senior U.N. officials warned earlier this month that the Central African Republic was on the brink of collapse and said the crisis was threatening to spread beyond its borders.
They called for the Security Council to fund and support an African Union peacekeeping force.
(Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and David Brunnstrom)