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Attack on presidential palace thwarted in Bangui

  • A French soldier wipes his brow during an operation to secure a section of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    A French soldier wipes his brow during an operation to secure a section of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • A boy salvages scraps of metal from the remains of burned shops, as French soldiers stand guard in a neighborhood where Chadian soldiers clashed with anti-balaka Christian militiamen on Wednesday afternoon, in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    A boy salvages scraps of metal from the remains of burned shops, as French soldiers stand guard in a neighborhood where Chadian soldiers clashed with anti-balaka Christian militiamen on Wednesday afternoon, in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • French soldiers drive past the burnt-out shell of a pick-up truck in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. Residents and anti-balaka militiamen claimed the neighborhood had been attacked by Chadian soldiers firing rockets, and that anti-balaka militiamen had retaliated by destroying a pick-up truck carrying soldiers with a grenade. Their account could not be independently verified. Several nearby homes and shops were destroyed. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    French soldiers drive past the burnt-out shell of a pick-up truck in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. Residents and anti-balaka militiamen claimed the neighborhood had been attacked by Chadian soldiers firing rockets, and that anti-balaka militiamen had retaliated by destroying a pick-up truck carrying soldiers with a grenade. Their account could not be independently verified. Several nearby homes and shops were destroyed. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • A young man who was hit in the back by a stray bullet on Christmas Eve cries out in pain as he receives medical care at a Doctors Without Borders clinic in a camp for the displaced in the Boy Rabe neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 200,000 people remain displaced in the capital alone, and more than half of those are children. Many of the displaced lack even basic shelter from the elements, while hunger is rampant and insecurity growing in the overcrowded and rudimentary camps. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    A young man who was hit in the back by a stray bullet on Christmas Eve cries out in pain as he receives medical care at a Doctors Without Borders clinic in a camp for the displaced in the Boy Rabe neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 200,000 people remain displaced in the capital alone, and more than half of those are children. Many of the displaced lack even basic shelter from the elements, while hunger is rampant and insecurity growing in the overcrowded and rudimentary camps. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • A medical worker changes the bandages of a young man who survived a machete attack, at a Doctors Without Borders clinic in a camp for the displaced in the Boy Rabe neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 200,000 people remain displaced in the capital alone, and more than half of those are children. Many of the displaced lack even basic shelter from the elements, while hunger is rampant and insecurity growing in the overcrowded and rudimentary camps. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    A medical worker changes the bandages of a young man who survived a machete attack, at a Doctors Without Borders clinic in a camp for the displaced in the Boy Rabe neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 200,000 people remain displaced in the capital alone, and more than half of those are children. Many of the displaced lack even basic shelter from the elements, while hunger is rampant and insecurity growing in the overcrowded and rudimentary camps. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • A woman walks past a home that local residents alleged was destroyed by a rocket during a Wednesday attack by Chadian peacekeepers, in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. Residents and anti-balaka militiamen claimed the neighborhood had been attacked by Chadian soldiers, and that anti-balaka militiamen had retaliated by destroying a pick-up truck carrying soldiers with a grenade. Their account could not be independently verified. Several nearby homes and shops were destroyed. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    A woman walks past a home that local residents alleged was destroyed by a rocket during a Wednesday attack by Chadian peacekeepers, in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. Residents and anti-balaka militiamen claimed the neighborhood had been attacked by Chadian soldiers, and that anti-balaka militiamen had retaliated by destroying a pick-up truck carrying soldiers with a grenade. Their account could not be independently verified. Several nearby homes and shops were destroyed. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • French soldiers drive through the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    French soldiers drive through the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • A French soldier during an operation to secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    A French soldier during an operation to secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • A French soldier stands guard during an operation to secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    A French soldier stands guard during an operation to secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • French soldiers arrive outside the house of an ex-Seleka general, during an operation to secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    French soldiers arrive outside the house of an ex-Seleka general, during an operation to secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • Girls hold hands as they walk past a French soldier holding a position, during an operation to secure part of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    Girls hold hands as they walk past a French soldier holding a position, during an operation to secure part of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • French soldiers cover each other as they secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    French soldiers cover each other as they secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • French soldiers secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    French soldiers secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • A family pushes home the body of an 18-year-old boy, killed by stray gunfire, in the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    A family pushes home the body of an 18-year-old boy, killed by stray gunfire, in the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • An anti-balaka militiaman gestures as he vows that the Christian militia will kill all the Chadians if they don't leave the country, in front of a home local residents say was destroyed by Chadian rocket fire, in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    An anti-balaka militiaman gestures as he vows that the Christian militia will kill all the Chadians if they don't leave the country, in front of a home local residents say was destroyed by Chadian rocket fire, in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • A man runs past a body to strike another man, as tensions flared in central Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    A man runs past a body to strike another man, as tensions flared in central Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • French troops secure a neighborhood in the Miskine district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    French troops secure a neighborhood in the Miskine district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • Residents carry their belongings as they flee past French armored personnel carries, in the Miskine district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

    Residents carry their belongings as they flee past French armored personnel carries, in the Miskine district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

  • A French soldier wipes his brow during an operation to secure a section of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • A boy salvages scraps of metal from the remains of burned shops, as French soldiers stand guard in a neighborhood where Chadian soldiers clashed with anti-balaka Christian militiamen on Wednesday afternoon, in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • French soldiers drive past the burnt-out shell of a pick-up truck in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. Residents and anti-balaka militiamen claimed the neighborhood had been attacked by Chadian soldiers firing rockets, and that anti-balaka militiamen had retaliated by destroying a pick-up truck carrying soldiers with a grenade. Their account could not be independently verified. Several nearby homes and shops were destroyed. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • A young man who was hit in the back by a stray bullet on Christmas Eve cries out in pain as he receives medical care at a Doctors Without Borders clinic in a camp for the displaced in the Boy Rabe neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 200,000 people remain displaced in the capital alone, and more than half of those are children. Many of the displaced lack even basic shelter from the elements, while hunger is rampant and insecurity growing in the overcrowded and rudimentary camps. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • A medical worker changes the bandages of a young man who survived a machete attack, at a Doctors Without Borders clinic in a camp for the displaced in the Boy Rabe neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 200,000 people remain displaced in the capital alone, and more than half of those are children. Many of the displaced lack even basic shelter from the elements, while hunger is rampant and insecurity growing in the overcrowded and rudimentary camps. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • A woman walks past a home that local residents alleged was destroyed by a rocket during a Wednesday attack by Chadian peacekeepers, in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. Residents and anti-balaka militiamen claimed the neighborhood had been attacked by Chadian soldiers, and that anti-balaka militiamen had retaliated by destroying a pick-up truck carrying soldiers with a grenade. Their account could not be independently verified. Several nearby homes and shops were destroyed. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • French soldiers drive through the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • A French soldier during an operation to secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • A French soldier stands guard during an operation to secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • French soldiers arrive outside the house of an ex-Seleka general, during an operation to secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • Girls hold hands as they walk past a French soldier holding a position, during an operation to secure part of the Miskine neighborhood, in Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • French soldiers cover each other as they secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • French soldiers secure an area of the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • A family pushes home the body of an 18-year-old boy, killed by stray gunfire, in the Miskine neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • An anti-balaka militiaman gestures as he vows that the Christian militia will kill all the Chadians if they don't leave the country, in front of a home local residents say was destroyed by Chadian rocket fire, in the Gobongo neighborhood of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • A man runs past a body to strike another man, as tensions flared in central Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday. The Chadian contingent, which is made up of Arabic-speaking Muslim soldiers, has been accused of taking sides against the Christian population in the country's sectarian conflict. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • French troops secure a neighborhood in the Miskine district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
  • Residents carry their belongings as they flee past French armored personnel carries, in the Miskine district of Bangui, Central African Republic, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. The spokesman for an African Union peacekeeping force says six Chadian peacekeepers were killed and 15 were wounded, after being attacked Wednesday.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Assailants armed with heavy weapons attempted yesterday to attack the presidential palace as well as the residence of the Central African Republic’s embattled leader, but were pushed back, officials said.

Reached by telephone, Guy Simplice, spokesman for President Michel Djotodia, said there had been heavy fighting near the seat of government, before the army was able to block the aggressors. Although the attackers could not immediately be identified, for weeks there have been rumors that a Christian militia, believed to be backed by the president, who was ousted by Djotodia in a coup nine months ago, would attempt to seize back power.

The heavy arms fire could be heard from the five-star Hotel Ledger, near the center of town, where international journalists are staying. A rocket came over the hotel’s wall, landing on the hotel grounds. As the shooting died down, helicopters could be heard flying overhead.

The events are only the latest indicating that this deeply poor, but until recently relatively stable nation, is tipping into anarchy. Earlier yesterday, international forces were sent to pick up truckloads of decomposing bodies of slain Muslims, whose remains had been left at a local mosque by their friends and relatives, who were too frightened to be seen burying them in a city where Christian-on-Muslim and Muslim-on-Christian attacks have become a daily occurrence.

It also comes a day after the African Union lost six peacekeepers, who were attacked in the Gobongo neighborhood of the capital. Their destroyed car, with at least one calcified body still inside, had not been removed a day later, underscoring how dangerous this chaotic country has become, even for the international forces tasked with pacifying it, said African Union spokesman Eloi Yao.

As the African Union was struggling to secure that crime scene, they discovered another: Close to the presidential palace, peacekeepers discovered a mass grave.

“We found around 20 bodies in a state of decomposition in an area that we call Panthers’ Hill. The 20 were scattered in different graves in a small area. You found five bodies in one hole, three in another, two in yet another and so on,” said Yao.

The Central African Republic has been plunged into chaos, as the country’s Christian majority seeks revenge against the Muslim rebels who seized power in a coup in March. Both Christian and Muslim civilians are now armed, and the foreign troops brought in to try to rein in the violence have been sucked into the conflict, accused of taking sides.

The Chadians, part of an African Union force, are Muslim and are seen by the population as backing the Seleka rebels who toppled the nation’s Christian president in March. On the flip side, the 1,600 French troops who were deployed in the first week of December are accused of backing the nation’s Christian majority, and their patrols have come under fire in Muslim neighborhoods.

Caught in the middle are civilians, both Christians and Muslims, who are now bearing the brunt of collective punishment. Militiamen have been seen desecrating the corpses of their victims. An AP journalist saw Christian fighters known as anti-Balaka brandishing the severed penis of one dead man, and the hacked-off foot of another. Unclaimed bodies left to rot were found missing their genitals. Another was missing his nose.

The United Nations estimates that 639,000 people out of a population of 4.5 million have been forced to flee their homes. Altogether 2 million people need humanitarian aid – almost half the country.

The barbarity unleashed on the streets of this capital has surprised many. Although chronically poor, Central African Republic was relatively stable for the 10 years following its second-to-last coup in 2003. That military takeover brought Christian leader Francois Bozize to power. Though he was accused of favoring members of his ethnic group, and marginalizing the nation’s Muslim minority, who represent just 15 percent of the population, the country never saw violence on the scale it is witnessing now.

On Wednesday in her home in the Gobongo neighborhood where the peacekeepers were attacked, Elodiane Baalbe spent Christmas hiding underneath her bed, her six children squeezed next to her, in the foot and a half below the mattress. When it finally died down yesterday, she made a dash for safety, hiding behind houses in her district as she fled her neighborhood.

On her way out she passed the calcified car of a unit of Chadian peacekeepers, the charred body of one soldier still upright in the vehicle inside. The sight was so horrifying that she looked away immediately. “I had my 3-year-old on my back. I looked for a second, and then I kept running,” she said.

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