BAMBARI, Central African Republic — French forces in Central African Republic fired mortars and exchanged sustained gunfire on Saturday with Muslim rebels who once controlled the country.
The substantial engagement by the French, including a Gazelle helicopter that fired a rocket, occurred in the central town of Bambari. Ex-Seleka forces crossed the bridge on the Bangui road and engaged French forces 300 meters from a bridge, prompting the French to fire warning shots and mortars, said a French military officer on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Many local residents had earlier demonstrated against the French forces and blocked the bridge to prevent them from passing.
The group known as Seleka was forced from power in January nearly a year after its fighters overthrew the president. Christian militias have sprung up, saying they are seeking revenge for atrocities committed during Seleka's rule and plunging the country into sectarian violence that has left thousands dead and forced nearly 1 million people to flee their homes.
The exchange Saturday shows that former Seleka rebels, who have been in disarray since they were forced from power, have not been defeated and may be gaining strength. Hundreds of the Muslim fighters had gathered more than two weeks ago to choose Gen. Joseph Zindeko as their new leader. He was once a commander of a rebel base in the capital, Bangui. At that time, the rebels said they intended to create a political wing so they can participate in reconciliation talks.
Around 2,000 French troops and nearly 5,000 African peacekeepers are trying to stabilize Central African Republic, a country about the size of Texas. Last month, the U.N. Security Council authorized a nearly 12,000-strong peacekeeping force to bolster the troops already in the country to protect civilians, though the U.N. force is not expected to be operational until September.