BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) -- French troops backed by a helicopter traded fire with suspected former rebels in a Bangui neighborhood rife with sectarian tensions Friday, as France's military chief arrived in the Central African Republic capital.
The violence that has left the country verging on anarchy showed few signs of abating on Friday in the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, where a band of about a dozen Muslim men with machetes faced off against an equally large group of Christian youths.
Anger boiled over in the neighborhood after the overnight death of a Christian taxi driver at the hands of the mostly Muslim former rebels.
The impoverished country has descended into chaos since March, when rebel groups overthrew the government. French forces trying to disarm Bangui are facing a backlash from residents terrified to give up weapons they fear they need to defend themselves.
"They are looting our shops and homes. We have the right to intervene and protect ourselves," said Hassan Annour, a 36-year-old Muslim who was himself wielding a machete.
People on both sides have carried out retaliatory violence across Central African Republic, an overwhelmingly Christian country that until March had seen little sectarian strife.
Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye issued a new warning over the rising violence, calling in an interview with French television for a rapid disarming of all sides.
"Religious communities that have always lived together in perfect harmony are now massacring each other.
France is deploying 1,600 soldiers to bolster regional African peacekeepers, trying to stabilize the country after more than 500 people died last week in religious fighting. Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arrived Friday to meet with troops and commanders, the French military said in Paris.
On Thursday, African peacekeepers fired into the air to keep a mob from killing a group of Muslims who had sought refuge in a church compound. Their rage stems from Seleka attacks on civilians since the rebel coalition tossed out the Christian president in a coup that brought President Michel Djotodia to power.
Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.
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