The streets of the capital of the Central African Republic were deserted Tuesday with terrified residents sheltering indoors and tens of thousands fleeing their homes after three days of shooting and bloodshed.
"We fear that the violence we\’re seeing in Bangui is a return to the dark days of late 2013 and 2014, when thousands were killed and tens of thousands had to flee their homes," UN refugee agency spokesman Leo Dobbs told reporters.
At least 36 people died in the last three days and 27,400 fled their homes, the United Nations said.
Gunfire was heard in the afternoon in the Combattant neighbourhood next to Bangui\’s international airport, where some 20,000 people have taken refuge near French and UN military bases.
Announcing she was cutting short a visit to UN headquarters in New York, the country\’s interim president Catherine Samba Panza said in a message broadcast on national radio: "I appeal to you my compatriots for calm. I ask you to return to your homes."
Sources close to the presidency told AFP she was expected back in Bangui late Tuesday.
In Geneva, the UNHCR\’s Dobbs said 10,000 of those who fled had taken refuge at the airport, which had already been hosting around 11,000 people.
"There is great difficulty getting to the airport. There are barricades in the streets and there was shooting going on this morning," he said. "The displaced people are reported to be in a state of shock."
Residents said members of the feared "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) Christian militia, which sprung up in 2013 to defend against mainly Muslim Seleka fighters, had begun gathering in Bangui on Monday.
"Groups of them, armed with machetes, have taken up positions in the streets of the 8th and 5th districts," one of the few residents to venture out into the streets told AFP.
The fighters were positioned near the city\’s PK-5 shopping area, the last bastion of Muslims hounded out of other areas by the Christian militia.
The latest escalation in two years of unrest began in PK-5 when a young Muslim motorcycle-taxi driver was murdered at the weekend, angering Muslims who used grenades and guns in counter-attacks on Christians in nearby districts.
Around 100 people were wounded in the bloodshed, prompting the government to impose a curfew on the capital.
The PK-5 area was the epicentre of an unprecedented wave of violence pitting majority Christians against minority Muslims in late 2013 and early last year.
Fears of a sudden refugee influx saw the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo announce the immediate closure of its northern border with the landlocked former French colony.
One in 10 Central Africans — 460,000 people — have sought refuge outside the country, mainly in Cameroon, Chad, DR Congo and Congo, since the start of the conflict.