November 20, 2014 / 10:14 PM / 3 years ago

At least six dead as militias fight U.N. in C.African Republic

BANGUI (Reuters) - At least six people were killed and around 10 were injured in western Central African Republic during clashes pitting Christian militia fighters against U.N. peacekeepers, a town residents and local journalist said on Thursday.

Shooting erupted in Cantonnier, a town on the border with Cameroon around 600 km (370 miles) west of the capital Bangui, Wednesday afternoon when soldiers from the U.N. mission, known as MINUSCA, attempted to disarm so-called anti-balaka fighters.

Central African Republic descended into chaos when the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the majority Christian state in March 2013, ousting President Francois Bozize.

A backlash from the mostly Christian or animist anti-balaka militia led to clashes that have killed thousands, displaced around a million people, and brought de facto partition of the country.

"Yesterday the anti-balaka came out to clean their weapons. Bystanders alerted MINUSCA who came to take the weapons. But they refused. They started to shoot and MINUSCA fired back," said Firmin Yaiman, a journalist in the town.

The gunfire continued for several hours, another resident of Cantonnier told Reuters by telephone.

Two anti-balaka fighters were killed in the clash and the bodies of four civilians believed to have been struck by stray bullets were recovered in neighbourhoods near the scene of the violence on Thursday, the Yaiman and the witness said.

The injured were admitted to the town's hospital, they said.

Violence has continued despite deployment of the U.N. mission, which could not confirm the death toll from Wednesday's clash.

"I know there was an exchange of fire in Cantonnier when our forces were on patrol and were attacked by armed people near the town's police station," MINUSCA spokesperson Myriam Dessables said.

Central African Republic is rich in diamonds, uranium and gold but it has been plagued by coups and misrule since independence from France in 1960, leaving it one of the world's most impoverished countries.

Reporting by Crispin Dembassa-Kette; Writing by Joe Bavier; editing by Ralph Boulton

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