An "unprecedented level of violence" in the Central African Republic capital has left 30 dead in three days, the Red Cross said Friday, as French troops converged on a rebel-held northern town.
French military aircraft hovered over the town of Sibut, 180 km (110 miles) north of Bangui, which was seized by ex-Seleka rebels on Thursday, prompting African troops and hundreds of frightened residents to flee.
"A military operation is happening in Sibut," a French communication officer told AFP, while a defence official in Paris confirmed the presence of the aircraft since Friday afternoon.
The installation of a new government in the strife-torn nation has failed to stem inter-religious violence between the mostly Muslim Seleka and Christian militia groups.
Tensions remain fraught in Bangui, where Red Cross officials said they had collected 30 bodies in the past three days after fighting which also left 60 people wounded.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation Georgios Georgantas said he was very concerned by an "unprecedented level of violence".
The poor, landlocked country descended into chaos 10 months ago after Seleka overthrew the government and installed one of their leaders, Michel Djotodia, as the country's first Muslim president.
His Seleka fighters began targeting people from the Christian majority, prompting the emergence of self-defence groups that launched revenge attacks on Muslims amid reports of murder, mutilation, rape and looting by both sides.
By the time Djotodia was effectively ousted by regional leaders on January 10 for his failure to end the spiralling bloodshed, about a million people were displaced in a population of 4.6 million.
Georgantas urged the authorities and some 7,000 French and African troops based near Bangui's airport to "take up their responsibilities" and keep the peace in a city abandoned by hundreds of thousands of residents.
The foreign soldiers were patrolling districts of the capital, where French troops this week warned looters that they would open fire if they failed to disperse.
'Villages deserted, people terrorised'
However the interior of the country is a lawless zone ruled by warlords, with little or no presence of foreign troops.
Doctors Without Borders said this week some of its emergency teams had reported "that some villages remain deserted and people are terrorised."
Albert, a resident of Sibut, is one of hundreds who fled the town when a convoy of Seleka, "armed to the teeth", first arrived on Wednesday night, attacking civilians before moving in a day later.
"As I speak to you, I am hiding in the bush, about 10km from Sibut. Ninety-nine percent of the inhabitants are in the bush, there is no-one left in town," he told AFP by telephone "They have committed destruction, robberies in broad daylight, they break down doors, they loot, they clean out suburbs. Bad luck for you if they find you!" he added.
African leaders and Western diplomats are set to hold a donor conference in Addis Ababa on Saturday to raise funds for the African Union-led military mission known as MISCA, which is expected to be 6,000-strong by the end of March.
The country's new interim leader Catherine Samba Panza has called for more international troops.
"What we hope is strong support for MISCA, to enable it to implement its mandate more effectively," the director of the AU peace and security council, El-Ghassim Wane, told AFP in the Ethiopian capital.
Samba Panza has maintained an overnight curfew in Bangui that begins at 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) and was imposed by her predecessor in a bid to quell unrest.
The curfew means that civilians wounded at the end of the day or during night attacks must wait until morning to receive medical attention. Volunteers in the Central African Red Cross set to work at dawn to help victims and collect bodies reported to them by families or local residents.
The violence has created a massive humanitarian crisis, and the UN World Food Programme said in Geneva it urgently needed $95 million to provide food assistance to the population.
The European Union meanwhile pledged 45 million euros ($61 million) in fresh funding on Friday, just over half of which would be used to back the MISCA mission, EU officials said.
"We are mobilising all available resources, not just development aid, to help the people of the Central African Republic and improve their security," said EU Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs.
The EU has already committed around 150 million euros to the crisis, and this month approved a 500-strong force to be deployed in CAR, alongside the 5,500 MISCA soldiers and 1,600 French troops.