By Paul-Marin Ngoupana
BANGUI (Reuters) - Central African Republic's president flew into exile in Benin on Saturday and a new interim team started the process of identifying leaders who might restore order to a nation gripped by months of inter-religious violence.
There were hopes that the change of leadership might provide a fresh start to peace efforts but gunfire rang out, mosques were attacked and Muslim-owned shops and houses were looted overnight before violence eased during the day.
The United Nations called for calm and stepped up flights out for foreigners. Governments of other African countries have evacuated nearly 30,000 of their citizens caught up in the violence.
President Michel Djotodia and Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye quit on Friday under intense international pressure after they failed to halt cycles of violence that have killed thousands and driven a million people, a quarter of the country's population, from their homes.
Late on Friday, thousands of people took to the streets of Bangui, the country's crumbling riverside capital, to celebrate the departure of Djotodia, who was swept to power by mainly Muslim rebels, known as Seleka, last March.
Abuses by Seleka forces had led to the creation of Christian self-defense militia and killings that evoked memories of Rwanda's genocide 20 years ago.
Djotodia landed in Benin on Saturday afternoon after Central African regional leaders asked the country to host him, according to a statement by Benin's government.
The choice is unsurprising as Djotodia knows Benin. He spent several years there during the last decade of turmoil and has family in the West African nation.
Joy over Djotodia's departure gave way to violence late on Friday and African and French peacekeepers reported overnight clashes between Seleka fighters and Christian militia.
"But I can confirm that a good part of the shooting was warning shots from us to disperse looters who were targeting Muslim homes and shops," an officer in the African peacekeeping mission said, asking not to be named.
The local Red Cross said it had collected three bodies from the streets after violence overnight.
"We don't understand why we keep killing each other, looting and sowing destruction amongst civilians, even after the politicians people wanted out had stepped down," said Ahamat Deliriss, vice president of the Islamic Council.
"Mosques in the Petevo, Yapele and Bimbo neighborhoods were destroyed. It is a shame."
The streets of Bangui were largely quiet on Saturday.
"TIME FOR PAYBACK"
Former colonial power France, which had sought to stay out of the latest crisis in a country where it has often intervened, dispatched hundreds of soldiers last month to bolster a beleaguered African peacekeeping force as killings spiraled.
Yet violence has continued, killing 1,000 in December. French and Chadian troops were among the victims and international pressure mounted on Djotodia to step aside at an emergency summit hosted by neighboring Chad this week.
Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, the head of Central African Republic's (CAR) transitional assembly (CNT), is officially in charge of the country until the body can select a new leader to guide CAR to elections, which are due later this year.
While Djotodia went into exile, Nguendet and other Central African politicians returned to Bangui. Addressing the nation for the first time, Nguendet said the assembly would start work on identifying new leadership immediately.
Security is precarious despite the presence of 1,600 French and some 4,000 African peacekeepers on the ground. European Union governments broadly backed proposals on Friday for the EU to quickly send troops to help.
The International Organisation for Migration on Saturday began airlifting stranded foreigners out of the country, where 60,000 people from neighboring countries have asked to leave.
Some 27,000 people, mainly from Mali, Senegal, Niger and Chad, have already been evacuated by their governments.
Tensions are running high among those who will remain.
"They (Muslims) killed us, looted and mistreated us. Now it is time for payback," said Igor Moumini, a resident in the Sica 2 neighborhood.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Braun in Bangui, Madjiasra Nako in N'Djamena, Ange Aboa in Abidjan, Samuel Elijah in Cotonou and David Lewis in Dakar; Editing by Andrew Roche)