Bangui: The Central African Republic, one of the world's poorest and most unstable countries, was rocked on Wednesday after 19 people, including a UN soldier, were killed and more than 100 wounded in clashes between peacekeepers and militias in a flashpoint Muslim enclave of the capital.
Bangui's bloodiest flareup in two years brought hundreds of angry residents of the PK5 district to the base of the United Nations mission, MINUSCA.
There they laid out the corpses of 17 men who they said had been killed by UN troops on Tuesday -- violence that according to MINUSCA had begun with an ambush of peacekeepers after they had launched a security sweep.
Several bodies bore bullet wounds, an AFP reporter saw.
"Yesterday they killed lots of people. Here are the dead, which we have brought here," one man told AFP, as the bodies, draped in white, were laid before the closed door of the mission.
Reacting to the clashes, President Faustin-Archange Touadera said later Wednesday that criminal groups were holding people in the troubled district to ransom.
"Bandits have taken the population hostage," Touadera said as he left a meeting of UN and African Union representatives, according to a video released by the UN.
"This operation has as its sole objective the apprehension of the leaders (of the armed militias). It is not against one community or against the population" of the area, he added.
A security source late Tuesday said a UN soldier was killed and eight were wounded in the violence, which came when their patrol was ambushed on the outskirts of the neighbourhood.
Fifty-six wounded people were brought to the Bangui public hospital, one of whom subsequently died, according to staff there. Separately, the aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it treated 44 wounded.
"A Rwandan patrol supported by Central African forces was shot at and then pursued the attackers into PK5," the security source told AFP.
The clashes marked the bloodiest incident in Bangui since President Faustin-Archange Touadera was elected in 2016 -- an event showcased as a turning-point in one of the world's most chronically unstable countries.
"When President Touadera was on the campaign trail, he promised us that he would not touch a hair on a Muslim's head if we voted for him, which we did. Now you can see the results," said one of the demonstrators, who gave his name as Riyad.
The former French colony of 4.5 million people spiralled into bloodshed after longtime leader Francois Bozize was overthrown in 2013 by the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel alliance.
France intervened militarily to push out the Seleka alliance, but the country -- one of the poorest in the world -- remains plagued by violence between ex-rebels and vigilante militias.
Many armed groups are nominally organised along Christian or Muslim affiliations.
They both typically gain their revenue from extortion, roadblocks or mineral resources.
The PK5 district was once a Muslim rebel bastion, but it is now home to several criminal groups who have taken advantage of the weakness of the state.
Touadera's government can claim to control just a fifth of the country, with the rest in the hands of militias.
The UN recently threatened to dismantle all the armed groups' bases in PK5 unless they hand over their weapons, according to sources.
A series of clashes began on April 1, when UN peacekeepers on patrol in PK5 came under attack and returned fire.
A security sweep that began in the area on Sunday led to the deaths of two people, with 60 others injured, and was followed by Tuesday's bloodshed.
The UN's under-secretary general for peacekeeping operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, and the African Union's commissioner for peace and security, Smail Chergui, issued a joint statement on Wednesday appealing for calm.
The two arrived in Bangui on Tuesday on a visit aimed at promoting peace in the troubled country.
The AU last July agreed to launch an "African peace initiative" for CAR, consisting of a round table gathering armed groups and the government.
It had finished off a round of exploratory talks with militia groups on April 1.
In Paris, the French foreign ministry said it condemned "with the greatest firmness the attacks and violence" against MINUSCA and CAR forces.
Their joint operation consisted of "disarming and arresting criminal groups" in PK5, it said.