BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Two French soldiers have been killed in combat in Central African Republic's capital, President Francois Hollande's office announced Tuesday, underscoring the challenges of a new French military intervention in the nearly lawless former colony.
Hollande plans to visit the Central African Republic later Tuesday, heading into the tricky conflict zone after attending a memorial in South Africa for Nelson Mandela.
The early 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 in the street, 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 the capital, Bangui. Smoke billowed from smoldering vehicles nearby, and young men used pick axes and whatever tools they could find to try to tear down the walls of the mosque.
The government of Central African Republic, a 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 that left more than 400 people dead.
France now has some 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.
The two French troops were part of a team inspecting a neighborhood 1,200 meters east of Bangui's airport close to midnight Monday, in preparation for a disarmament operation, French military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said in Paris.
Five to 10 gunmen opened fire on the French patrol, which returned fire, he said. Two Frenchmen were wounded and taken to the hospital where they died. It was unclear whether anyone else died in the clash.
Jaron described "sporadic fire" around Bangui and occasional clashes since the French disarmament efforts got under way Monday.
Two deaths within days of the operation beginning marks a significant toll compared to France's mission in Mali earlier this year. A total of seven French soldiers have been killed there since January as France and its allies have ousted al-Qaida-linked extremists from power in northern cities.
French officials have warned of the dangers of the enhanced military mission alongside African Union troops in Central African Republic, authorized under a muscular mandate approved last week by the United Nations Security Council. France's defense minister has warned militia groups to disarm peacefully — or French troops will do it by force.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French forces were conducting patrols by foot and vehicle through the dusty streets of Bangui. At one point, they intervened to pull away a Muslim man, who claimed to be a merchant, from a mob that accused him of being a rebel leader.
Keaten contributed from Paris. Sylvie Corbet in Paris also contributed.