ADVERTISEMENT

BANGUI, Central African Republic – Thousands of Christian civilians sought refuge at an airport guarded by French soldiers Friday, fleeing from the mostly Muslim ex-rebels with machetes and guns who rule the country a day after the worst violence to hit the chaotic capital in nine months.

When several French helicopters landed at the airport, people sang with joy as they banged on plastic buckets and waved rags into the air in celebration.

Outside the barbed-wire fences of the airport, bodies lay decomposing along the roads in a capital too dangerous for many to collect the corpses. Thursday’s clashes left at least 280 dead, according to national radio, and have raised fears that waves of retaliatory attacks could soon follow.

“They are slaughtering us like chickens,” said Appolinaire Donoboy, a Christian whose family remained in hiding.

France had pledged to increase its presence in its former colony well before Christian militias attacked the capital at dawn Thursday. The arrival of additional French troops and equipment came as the capital teetered on the brink of total anarchy and represented the greatest hope for many Central Africans.

About 1,000 French forces were expected to be on the ground by Friday evening, a French defense official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

As night fell across the near anarchic capital, Christians fearing retaliatory attacks by the mostly Muslim ex-rebels crowded as close to the runway as possible, laying out their woven mats in front of a barbed-wire-coiled fence. National radio announced that at least 280 people had died, citing figures from local Red Cross officials.

The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by the violence and praised France’s quick intervention.

France signaled its amped-up presence in its former colony 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. Britain also flew in a C-17 plane Friday loaded with equipment to help with France’s intervention.

As many as 250 French troops are carrying out permanent patrols in Bangui, and “We didn’t notice any direct clashes between armed groups today,” said French military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron in Paris.

Thursday, Christian militias believed to be loyal to ousted leader Francois Bozize attacked the city, and hours of gunbattles ensued.

The conflict in one of Africa’s poorest countries has gathered little sustained international attention since the government overthrow in March, and the dramatic developments were overshadowed Friday by global mourning for South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, who died at age 95.