BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Muslim rebels stormed a Catholic church compound in the capital of Central African Republic on Wednesday, launching grenades and spraying civilians with gunfire, witnesses said. At least five bodies were brought to area hospitals, though some witnesses said the death toll could be as high as 30.
The attack on the compound at the church, where thousands of civilians had sought refuge from the violence ravaging Bangui's streets, is the largest and most brazen blamed on Muslim fighters since their Seleka coalition was ousted from power nearly five months ago.
Wednesday's attack marked a rare attack on a house of worship, as Catholic churches have served as sanctuaries for both Christian and Muslim civilians since the country erupted into sectarian bloodshed in December.
Fears escalated late Wednesday that the new bloodshed would spark reprisal attacks on the city's few remaining Muslims, most of whom fled the city in a mass exodus earlier this year that the U.N. has described as ethnic cleansing. In the hours that followed, Christian militia fighters began putting up road blockades around Bangui.
"We were in the church when were heard the shooting outside," the Rev. Freddy Mboula told The Associated Press. "There were screams and after 30 minutes of gunfire there were bodies everywhere."
There were conflicting reports of how many were killed, and fighting in the area also prohibited observers from independently confirming the toll. Mboula estimated that about 30 people were killed in the attack, including a priest. Associated Press journalists, however, counted five bodies brought to area hospitals and the toll remained unclear as night fell in Bangui.
A political crisis took on inter-communal dimensions as hatred among the Christian majority grew toward a brutal Muslim rebel regime that had seized power by force in March 2013. Muslim civilians were largely spared, while the rebels looted, raped and killed Christians.
Most of the sectarian violence in Bangui since January — when the rebels were forced from power — has involved Christian militia fighters targeting Muslims. Previous attacks have launched tit-for-tat retaliatory violence in the capital of Bangui.
Since the ouster of the Muslim rebels, a transitional government led by interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has been tasked with organizing elections no later than February 2015. But many observers doubt such a vote can be held because of the ongoing violence, and because rebels destroyed scores of voting lists in the towns they ransacked across the country.
The crisis in Central African Republic has forced nearly 1 million people from their homes, and at one point nearly 100,000 sought shelter on the grounds of the Bangui airport, which has been guarded by French and now other European peacekeepers.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press journalist Jerome Delay contributed to this report from Bangui, Central African Republic.