A dozen civilians were killed during clashes between Muslim Seleka fighters and Christian vigilante groups in the northern Central African Republic despite the reinforced presence of African peacekeepers in the area, witnesses said on Wednesday.

Seleka fighters, supported by mercenaries from Chad and Sudan, attacked residents this week in Bossembele and Boali, about 100 kilometres North-west of the capital, Bangui, witnesses said by telephone.

In retribution, Christian vigilante groups killed an unknown number of civilians in the mainly Muslim town of Sibut, also in the North, residents said.

Hundreds of Seleka fighters had rallied in Sibut last week to prepare a major offensive against Bangui in a bid to topple the conflict-ridden nation’s interim government.

In response, the African-led International Support Mission last week sent a contingent of peacekeepers to secure Sibut, a key market town, and prevent the offensive.

Scores of Seleka fighters had been escorted out of the capital by the peacekeepers since the Central African Republic’s interim President, Catherine Samba-Panza, a Christian, took office in mid-January, but violence between the Muslim fighters and Christian vigilante groups have continued throughout the country.

This week, fighting left at least 75 people dead in the South-western town of Boda.

Ms. Samba-Panza was elected interim leader after former transitional President Michel Djotodia, the country’s first Muslim president, and interim Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye ceded power on January 10 under pressure from regional leaders.

Thousands have been killed and nearly 1 million of the country’s 4.6 million people have been displaced since Seleka rose up against the government in December 2012 and overthrew then-President Francois Bozize, also a Christian, in March 2013. The rebels then installed Mr. Djotodia as president.

After 13 months of crisis, almost all of the Central African Republic’s people are in need of humanitarian aid, according to the European Union.

The EU last week pledged to make available an additional € 25 million to support the African peacekeepers.

In January, the UN Security Council authorized the EU to provide a backup of about 500 troops to the 1,600 French and 3,500 African Union peacekeepers already in the country. They could begin arriving in a couple of months.

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