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French, African troops try to halt C. African Republic killings

BANGUI (Reuters) - French soldiers were cheered by residents on Saturday as they began patrolling densely populated neighborhoods of Central African Republic's capital, Bangui, which has been rocked by waves of killings between Muslim and Christian communities.

Attacks on civilians in Bangui continued for a third day, aid workers said. Groups of heavily armed gunmen sped around its dusty streets after the expiry of a 3 p.m. (1400 GMT) deadline for all forces, except foreign peacekeepers and the presidential guard, to return to barracks.

France is deploying 1,600 troops to its former colony, where at least 400 people have died in three days of violence between the Seleka rebel group that seized power in March and Christian self-defence militias, which has spilled over into religious violence in the capital and beyond.

Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's emergency director, said Seleka fighters burned houses in Bossangoa, about 300 km (190 miles) north of Bangui, after French jets flew overhead. They killed a woman, leaving her body next to her crying baby, he said.

Central African Republic has been gripped by chaos since Seleka toppled President Francois Bozize and embarked on months of looting, rapes and killings. Seleka's leader, Michel Djotodia, installed as CAR's interim president, has lost control of his loose band of fighters.

The U.N. Security Council authorised France on Thursday to use deadly force to help African peacekeepers struggling to restore order. Paris sprang into action after an attack on Bangui the same day by Christian militias and gunmen loyal to Bozize that ignited the worst violence in a year of crisis.

French helicopters and warplanes flew low over the dilapidated riverside capital on Saturday. Residents in the Combattants neighbourhood cheered French soldiers as they patrolled on foot down narrow streets.

"If they can get into the neighbourhoods, we might start seeing a reduction in these crimes," said Amy Martin, head of the U.N. Officer for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA. "The level of atrocities and the lack of humanity, the senseless killing, defies imagination."

REINFORCEMENTS

French reinforcements crossed into western Central African Republic from Cameroon on Saturday, while troops also moved northward from the capital in a bid to quickly pacify the sparsely populated interior, army spokesman Gilles Jarron said.

The troops reached Bossangoa shortly after nightfall.

The force's strength reached 1,200 troops by midday on Saturday and President Francois Hollande said 400 more were due by evening to cope with the unexpected scale of the violence.

"It's a number that will remain as long as necessary for this mission," Hollande told a news conference in Paris.

Hollande's office said the African Union force France is supporting would be increased to 6,000 men from 3,500.

"The country for the first time in its history is heading towards a religious war. We have to be very careful," Chadian President Idriss Deby, whose country has provided hundreds of troops to the mission, said after a meeting on the crisis.

About 10,000 Bangui residents fled to the airport, where French forces are based, in search of safety. Thousands more gathered at churches in town.

"Out-of-control Seleka fighters have been shooting all over the neighbourhoods so people cannot sleep," Topo Oubanguin, one of the displaced at the St. Jean de Galabadjia church, said.

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