BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — National radio in Central African Republic says the death toll from violence in the country has increased to at least 280 people.
Christian militias attacked the capital of Bangui at dawn Thursday, killing scores of people and setting off chaotic fighting.
French troops and equipment are now pouring into the country to prevent it from tipping into total anarchy.
Bodies lay decomposing along the roads Friday in a capital too dangerous for many to collect the corpses. Citing Red Cross officials, national radio said the toll from the violence was now above 280.
Christian civilians, fearing retaliatory attacks by the mostly Muslim ex-rebels who control Central African Republic, have fled by the thousands to the airport guarded by French forces. The mostly Muslim armed fighters who rule the country hunted door-to-door for their enemies.
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As armed gunmen who run the government hunted door-to-door for their enemies Friday, civilians caught in the crossfire fled by the thousands to the only refuge they know in this capital hovering at the edge of anarchy — the airport guarded by French troops.
Christians who fear retaliatory attacks by the mostly Muslim ex-rebels who control Central African Republic crowded as close to the runway as possible, laying out their woven mats in front of a barbed wire coiled fence as night fell.
When several helicopters landed at the airport, people sang with joy as they banged on plastic buckets and waved rags into the air. In a country with no functional army or police, the French represent the greatest hope after a spasm of bloodshed Thursday left more than 100 dead.
Appolinaire Donoboy told The Associated Press he counted five bodies on his way to the airport.
"They are slaughtering us like chickens," said Donoboy, a Christian whose family remained in hiding as former rebels search house-to-house.
France signaled its amped up presence in its former colony on Friday by sending out armored vehicles to patrol the streets. A French fighter jet made several flyovers, roaring through the sky over an otherwise lifeless capital as civilians cowered at home.
A planned vote on a U.N. Security Council resolution Thursday allowed France to proceed with its mission. It coincided with the greatest violence to roil the capital since March when the mostly Muslim rebels known as Seleka overthrew the president of a decade.
On Thursday, Christian militias believed to be loyal to ousted leader Francois Bozize attacked the city, and hours of gunbattles ensued.
"Thanks to France and the United Nations who want to save the Central Africans, soon the Seleka attacks on civilians will stop. We have had enough of Seleka killing, raping and stealing," said Abel Nguerefara, who lives on the outskirts of Bangui.
Streets in the city were empty Friday except for military vehicles and the trucks favored by the rebel forces who now claim control of the government. Nine unclaimed bodies lay sprawled in front of the parliament building — local Red Cross workers didn't dare retrieve them, or other bodies that were left to decay outside.
Despite the cheers that went up when a jet engine roared overhead, France insisted it was going only reluctantly into Central African Republic and with the limited aim of doubling its presence in the country to 1,200 troops.
About 1,000 French forces were expected to be on the ground by Friday evening, a French defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. Britain also flew in a C-17 plane Friday loaded with equipment to help with France's intervention.
"You have to secure, you have to disarm," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Radio France Internationale. "You have to ensure that the vandals, the bandits, the militias know they can't use the streets of Bangui for their battles."
Le Drian said French forces protecting the airport opened fire Thursday on a rebel pickup truck bearing down on them, killing several men inside. He described the shooting as "legitimate defense."
Still, it remains an open question how France can achieve even its limited goals in the six months allotted to the mission.
"There's a big gap between the vision France has of itself as a global power and as a power that can intervene," said Aline Leboeuf, a security and development specialist at the French Institute for International Relations.
The real question, she added, is: "Can you intervene in the right way and when do you leave?"
France's military, which controls Bangui airport, said about 2,000 Central Africans took refuge there Thursday, most if not all of them Christian. The crowd swelled on Friday.
Yves Wayina, 26, fled with his wife and six children.
"France must come and rapidly deploy and do everything possible to save us," he told the AP on Friday.
Since 2011, France has intervened in four African countries, in Ivory Coast, on a joint mission in Libya, in Mali and now in Central African Republic.
Rebel leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia appealed for calm, even as his residence and that of the prime minister were looted and vandalized by the fighters Thursday. He announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew in hopes of preventing retaliatory violence against Christians from Muslims.
In a speech broadcast Thursday in the Sango language and a television interview in French, Djotodia called on people to realize that French forces were not in Central African Republic to take sides in an increasingly sectarian conflict.
Scores of residents died in Thursday's attack, including 48 people whose bodies were laid out at a mosque in a northern suburb of Bangui. The charity group Doctors Without Borders said another 50 deaths had been confirmed at its hospitals, bringing the toll to 98. And at least 12 bodies went unclaimed on Friday.
Djotodia, the country's current ruler, who is Muslim, unified rebel groups in the country's mostly Muslim north, where resentment of the federal government and a sense of disenfranchisement has been rife for years. Yet once those rebels were unleashed upon the capital, he wielded very little control over the mix of bush fighters, child soldiers and foreign mercenaries he had recruited.
Supporters of the ousted president formed self-defense militias such as those behind Thursday's attack, which came hours before the U.N. Security Council voted to authorize the French deployment.
"We're appreciative of France, but we know that 50 years after our independences, France is again required to come in as a fireman to save us — it's not right," said Alpha Conde, president of Guinea. "It's a humiliation for Africa that 50 years afterward, we are not at all able to manage our problems ourselves."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius repeated his government's desire for a robust African force to intervene in the future.
"It's not up to France to intervene each time," he said.
Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten, Elaine Ganley and Sylvie Corbet in Paris, and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.
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