'Rebellion taking shape in CAR' - death toll soars after clashes

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FILE image. Rebels of the Seleka coalition sit on a pick up truck as they search for people suspected of looting in a neighbourood of Bangui on March 26, 2013. The Central African Republic has been sliding into chaos since rebels took over in March.

BANGUI - Almost 40 people were killed in weekend fighting between armed vigilantes and former rebels near Bouar in western Central African Republic, the army said on Tuesday, issuing a new toll.

A source close to the general staff said: "The fighting last Saturday between self-defence militias and ex-rebels killed almost 40 people, including at least 35 in the ranks of the militias, with several wounded."

A previous toll on Sunday said 12 people were killed.

Early on Saturday, hundreds of local militias armed with military weapons and machetes encircled Bouar, a town about 400 kilometres northwest of the capital Bangui on Saturday morning, the source said.

The militiamen were confronted by ex-rebels of the Seleka alliance, which has been disbanded by President Michel Djotodia since they brought him to power after ousting his predecessor, Francois Bozize, in March.

Bouar lies in a region of the highly unstable and very poor landlocked nation where people were considered loyal to Bozize, who himself seized power in a coup in 2003 and was twice re-elected into office.

A wounded former rebel colonel, Al Goni Moussa, said the militiamen "attacked us with RPG 7 (rocket launchers) and Kalashnikov (assault rifles), as well as home-made rifles."

"The fighting lasted for more than two hours. We drove back the anti-balakas (militias). Their leader, Francois alias &39;Bokassa&39;, was killed. His brother and his son were also killed," Moussa said.

The death toll could "rise further, in light of the intensity of the fighting that followed the attack on the ex-Seleka base and on the Bouar aerodrome by the self-defence militia," an army source said.

"This is really a rebellion taking shape," said a source in the president&39;s office who asked not to be named. "Those who are behind this rebellion have also claimed responsibility for the attacks on Bossangoa and Bouca" in the northwest," he added.

Early in September, attacks by hitherto unknown militia forces that emerged to protect the population from local warlords killed almost 100 people in the Bossangoa region.

Atrocities blamed on Seleka forces -- whom the regime is integrating into the regular armed forces -- have led to communal violence, sparking fears that clashes may take a religious turn, pitting Muslims against Christians, who make up about 80 percent of the population of some 4.5-million.

Most of the fighters in the movements that formed the Seleka alliance profess the Islamic faith and Djotodia, who was sworn in on August 18 to oversee a transition back to democracy, is the country&39;s first Muslim head of state.