By KRISTA LARSON and JAMEY KEATEN
BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) -- Two French soldiers have been killed in combat in Central African Republic's capital, President Francois Hollande's office announced Tuesday, the first French casualties five days into a stepped-up military intervention in the restive former colony.
The announcement of the deaths came shortly after the French presidential palace said Hollande would travel to Central African Republic on Tuesday after attending a memorial in South Africa for Nelson Mandela.
The early casualties underscore the volatility of the mission to bring stability to a largely anarchic capital, where a mob on Monday stoned to death a suspected enemy in the street, and where armed fighters have abducted and killed hospital patients.
Tensions flared again Tuesday as a mob of young men set fire to a mosque in the Fou neighborhood of the capital, Bangui. Smoke billowed from smoldering vehicles nearby, and young men used pick axes and whatever tools they could find to try to tear down the walls of the mosque.
The government of Central African Republic, a predominantly Christian country, was overthrown in March by Muslim rebels from the country's north. While religious ideology played no role in their explanation for why they seized power, months of resentment and hostility erupted last week in a wave of violence that left more than 400 people dead.
France now has some 1,600 troops on the ground in Central African Republic, patrolling neighborhoods and trying to disarm militants from the Seleka rebel movement that forced the president into exile and installed their own leader Michel Djotodia as head of state.
In a statement, the Elysee Palace provided no details about the killings in Bangui late Monday other than that the two soldiers died during France's mission to provide security, protect civilians, and ensure access for humanitarian groups in the impoverished country.
Two deaths within days of the operation beginning marks a significant toll compared to France's mission in Mali earlier this year. A total of seven French soldiers have been killed there since January as France and its allies have ousted al-Qaida-linked extremists from power in northern cities.
French officials have warned of the dangers of the enhanced military mission alongside African Union troops in Central African Republic, authorized under a muscular mandate approved last week by the United Nations Security Council. France's defense minister has warned militia groups to disarm peacefully -- or French troops will do it by force.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French forces were conducting patrols by foot and vehicle through the dusty streets of Bangui. At one point, they intervened to pull away a Muslim man, who claimed to be a merchant, from a mob that accused him of being a rebel leader.
Keaten contributed from Paris.