The U.N. Security Council has authorized an intervention force tasked with protecting civilians in the strife-torn Central African Republic, just hours after violence in the country’s ongoing sectarian conflict between elements of the Muslim and Christian populations left scores dead.
The vote, which authorizes an international peacekeeping force made up of French and African troops, came as intense fighting hit the capital, Bangui, killing up to 105 people, according to an aid worker who spoke to Reuters.
The force, which will be led by the African Union (AU), has a yearlong mandate to protect civilians and restore security and public order. It is replacing a regional peacekeeping mission whose presence has been mainly limited to the capital and a few northern cities.
The U.N. resolution further allows French forces, for a temporary period, to "take all necessary measures" to support the AU-led force, known as MISCA, whose troop numbers are expected to rise from about 2,500 to 3,500.
Thursday's fighting was the most significant attack since the rebel Seleka coalition seized power in March. It also marked the first time Seleka opponents have attacked multiple parts of the capital simultaneously.
The homes of the president and prime minister were looted during the violence. Residents hid indoors, with some seeking sanctuary inside a church. By afternoon, the streets were empty of all but military vehicles and the four-wheel-drive pickup trucks favored by the rebel soldiers.
The fighting was between the mostly Muslim fighters who now control the impoverished nation and Christians who support its ousted president. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has warned that the country is on "the verge of genocide."
Hours after fighting broke out, President Michel Djotodia, who was installed by Seleka earlier this year, said the clashes were over.
Inside a Bangui hospital, dozens of people with gunshot wounds lay on the floor or on wooden benches, waiting for hours to see a physician.
An attack earlier this week, blamed on Christian fighters, killed nearly a dozen women and children in a remote community.
Fabius said military intervention would be put into place swiftly after the U.N. vote, telling BFM-TV that the French deployment would total around 1,200, with 600 troops already in place.
"We have to end this humanitarian catastrophe and restore security," Fabius said.
Central African Republic Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye confirmed that his house had been looted, describing the attackers as a group of Seleka who arrived in three four-wheel-drive pickup trucks.
"It's true, my house was attacked and pillaged," he said, adding that his family was evacuated beforehand and was safe.
Babacar Gaye, the U.N. special representative for the Central African Republic, appealed for calm in a joint statement from the U.N., European Union, African Union and France.
Seleka is an unlikely group of allies who united a year ago with the goal of forcing then-President Francois Bozize from the presidency after a decade in power. After thousands of rebels besieged Bangui in March, Bozize fled and the insurgents installed Djotodia, their leader, as president.
Djotodia has increasingly sought to distance himself from Seleka, which has been blamed for scores of atrocities in Bangui, killing and raping civilians and stealing from aid groups and orphanages. He has even less control in the distant provinces where anger over Seleka's human rights abuses fueled the formation of the Christian anti-balaka movement several months ago. Balaka means "machete."
While the anti-balaka fighters include villagers defending their communities against Seleka attacks with hunting rifles and machetes, the group is believed to be receiving support from Bozize allies. The anti-balaka fighters have been implicated in massacres on Muslim civilian populations, which also have suffered under the Seleka regime and say they are being unfairly blamed for Seleka's wanton abuses.
An accurate death toll is hard to come by in the Central African Republic, where many roads have not been repaved since independence from France in 1960.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press