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Chaos, gunbattles, hungry kids in Central African Republic

BANGUI, Central African Republic — French troops backed by a helicopter traded fire with suspected rebels in a tense Bangui neighborhood on Friday, as France's military chief arrived in Central African Republic to see how his troops are doing trying to stabilize the lawless country.

The violence that has left the former French colony verging on anarchy showed few signs of abating Friday in the capital's Miskine neighborhood, where about a dozen Muslim men with machetes faced off against a 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. It remains unclear whether or how many casualties there have been in the neighborhood Friday.

Violence outside the capital included a massacre Thursday of 27 Muslims in the village of Bohong in the western part of the country, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. In a statement, Ravina Shamdasani said the situation is also tense in the towns of Bouca, Bossangoa and Bozoum.

The impoverished country has descended into chaos since March, when rebel groups overthrew the Christian-led government. Some 1,600 French forces are trying to disarm Bangui, but face a backlash from residents too terrified to give up the 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 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.

More than 500 people have been killed in the last week, and the U.N. has warned that toll is expected to rise as teams venture out further into hard-hit neighborhoods.

Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye issued a new warning about the rising violence, urging a rapid disarming of all sides.

"Religious communities that have always lived together in perfect harmony are now massacring each other. The situation must be stopped as soon as possible," Tiangaye said.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arrived Friday to meet with troops and commanders who are bolstering regional African peacekeepers in the country, the French military said.

In Bangui, Le Drian met with French troops, where he told them they must "wipe out the spiral of atrocities and sectarian violence that is under way."

"One of your first tasks is to disarm the militias, while ensuring that civilian populations, Muslims as well as Christians, do not become targets of blind reprisals," he said, according to remarks carried on French television.

Even as the French worked to secure the city of 700,000, the U.N. said more than 160,000 people had fled their homes in Bangui alone. At least 38,000 of them are living around the airport guarded by French troops, afraid of returning to homes where former Muslim rebels have attacked civilians each night.

In a radio message to the people of Central African Republic, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the international body is committed to helping the country.

"I appeal to everyone to follow the path of peace," he said. "The bloodshed must stop."

Ban also warned those who might commit atrocities and crimes against humanity.

"The world is watching," he said. "You will be held to account."

On Friday, officials from the U.N. World Food Program began a chaotic distribution of rice, oil and split peas to several thousand people. Aid workers used megaphones to call out names of displaced people who had registered, but the names could hardly be heard over the shouts of frustration.

"We've been here for seven days and have not been able to find food," said Sophie Matias, 45, who was sleeping at the airport with her 10 children. "The kids are so hungry — they keep asking for food but we have nothing. "

A UNICEF cargo plane brought 77 metric tons (85 tons) of humanitarian supplies Friday, including blankets and plastic sheeting for nearly 38,000 people.

The charity group Doctors Without Borders has criticized the U.N. response to the growing humanitarian crisis here. In an open letter, the aid group said it "deplores the appalling performance of U.N. humanitarian agencies."

"Repeated evaluations in the face of glaring needs and numerous coordination meetings have not led to any concrete action around the main hotspots," the group said.

At Bangui's airport, tens of thousands are sleeping without shelter, although some have sought refuge inside the shells of abandoned bush planes and airport hangars. Some women laid out laundry to dry on the wings of rusty planes Friday while others waited in long lines for water.

Soon the morning commotion was interrupted by screams of grief. A 27-year-old mother of two, Prudence Seresona, had succumbed to malaria. As she lay wrapped in a white cloth on a woven mat, her little girls began sobbing over her body.

Ten-year-old Loika looked down at her little sister Adora and wiped the tears running down her face.

Then Prudence's sister came in and threw herself over the body in grief.

"Wake up! Wake up!" she sobbed. "Who is going to raise your children? How can you leave us?"

Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.

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