The Central African Republic's capital is experiencing "unprecedented levels of violence," with at least 30 people killed in the last three days, Red Cross officials warned Friday as heavily armed rebels regrouped in a town not far from the center of state.
At least 2,000 people are estimated to have been killed since the fighting began in November. Almost a million, a quarter of the population, have been displaced by violence since the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group seized power last March in the majority Christian country.
The United Nations has warned that the conflict in the landlocked former French colony risks spiraling into genocide.
The fighting has included instances of horrific violence, including the beheading and mutilation of children — which locals say the thousands of African Union and French troops in the country have been ineffective at stemming.
In one incident this week, marauding gangs with machetes hacked a man to death as French peacekeepers awaited instructions from their base.
By the time they fired warning shots, 10 minutes later, the man had already been slain by the crowd.
Heavy gunfire erupted again Friday in the capital, Bangui, where residents reported fighting between the Muslim rebel fighters and Christian militiamen in several neighborhoods.
Eric Sabe, who lives in the capital's third district, said his neighbor was killed by a stray bullet.
“We don't know what will happen tonight because the Muslims have sufficiently rearmed themselves. We're afraid they'll return to pillage and set fire to our homes like they did a week ago,” he said.
The attacks have largely targeted Muslim civilians accused of having supported the Seleka rebels who overthrew the government, ushering in months of violence against the Christian majority.
An armed Christian movement known as the anti-balaka arose in opposition to Seleka, and included supporters of ousted President Francois Bozize.
Now that the Seleka leader who installed himself as president has stepped down and many rebels have left the capital, Muslim civilians have become increasingly vulnerable to attacks.
"The level of violence is unprecedented in the last few weeks," said Nadia Dibsy, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Bangui. The ICRC said at least 30 bodies had been collected in recent days — a toll that did not include victims who had been buried by relatives.
Nearly 5,000 African peacekeepers and 1,600 French troops are working to secure the country, which is the size of Texas. However, most of those peacekeepers remain in Bangui, even as violence soars in the remote northwest.
Human rights groups have urged the troops to head into the communities where militias are regrouping and staging new attacks.
There also were new concerns Friday about the intentions of hundreds of Seleka rebels who had left the capital earlier this week under the escort of regional peacekeepers.
It now appears that they have merely reassembled at a base in the town of Sibut, located only about 110 miles from the capital.
While some fear that ex-Seleka fighters could launch another coup from Sibut, Seleka Gen. Mahamat Bahr said they wanted to work with the new transitional government that replaced their leader as head of state.
"We are here awaiting a solution for us," he said. "If the transitional government calls us, we can discuss our role."
U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson appealed Friday to international donors on the sidelines of an African Union summit.
“It is a critical situation, we have seen massive violations of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law,” Eliasson told Reuters. He said he had no set target for a meeting of donors in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Saturday, but added that a trust fund established to finance the mission had “only slightly over $5 million.”
The African Union force, MISCA, aims to raise the number of troops deployed by March to about 6,000, an African official said, the current ceiling for the force, although France has said more are needed.
Eliasson said the number of peacekeepers needed would depend on political progress, helped this month when a transitional assembly elected interim President Catherine Samba-Panza.
"This situation cannot be solved only by a military or peacekeeping operation," Eliasson said.
Al Jazeera and wire services