Nearly 50 people have been killed in three days in a fresh surge of sectarian violence in the Central African Republic, a peacekeeping officer said Wednesday.
The violence was triggered by the killing of 17 Muslims at a camp in the central Bambari region on Monday, by gunmen claiming to be from a mostly Christian militia called the anti-balaka.
Peacekeepers say the massacre has led to a series of reprisals and counter reprisals.
"Nearly 50 people have been killed since Monday during violence in the Bambari region and nearby villages," the officer from the African Union force MISCA told AFP. "Most of the victims were shot or stabbed to death."
The deeply impoverished Central African Republic has seen more than a year of unrest, with violence between mostly-Muslim ex-Seleka rebels and largely Christian militias leaving thousands dead and about a quarter of the population displaced.
The MISCA officer said the latest violence has been carried out both by "uncontrolled individuals and by small groups", and that civilians have been fleeing towards the cathedral, the archbishops palace, and local government buildings for safety.
"Apart from attacks aimed at civilians and the burning down of houses, there are also clashes that appear to be coordinated attacks by armed groups," both from Christian and Muslim militias, said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
An anti-balaka representative in the capital Bangui denied being behind the latest violence, saying they did not recognise "these out-of-control young rebels acting on their own initiative".
"At a time when anti-balaka and ex-Seleka are in contact, discussing peace and reconciliation, the anti-balaka does not engage in such acts," militia spokesman Brice-Emotion Namsio said.
Bambari, a mining town where ex-Seleka rebels have established their headquarters, is being closely watched by French soldiers from the Sangaris mission and African peacekeepers from the MISCA force although they have not been able to contain the violence.
Fighting in a village outside the town in early June left at least 22 people dead, both Muslim and Christian, according to security officials, and last week 10 bodies showing signs of torture were found in a river in the region.
The Seleka seized power in Bangui in a coup in March 2013, ousting president Francois Bozize and installing Michel Djotodia as head of state until he resigned last January, giving way to a transitional regime.
Many Seleka forces went rogue and killed, raped and looted civilians, leading to a backlash with the emergence of anti-balaka (anti-machete) forces, who are equally accused of widespread atrocities, primarily targeting the Muslim minority.
In a report released on Tuesday, advocacy group the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said that "war crimes and crimes against humanity" continue to be carried out as the conflict rages in the former French colony.
"The international community must support African, French and soon UN forces in putting an end to these crimes, protect civilians and bring those responsible for these crimes to justice," FIDH president Karim Lahidji said.