France’s military says Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has arrived on a surprise visit, within hours of a gunfight in the chaotic capital that drew French troops into a neighbourhood rife with sectarian tensions.

The impoverished country has descended into near-anarchy since March, when rebel groups overthrew the government. French forces trying to disarm Bangui face backlash from residents terrified to give up weapons they could use to defend themselves.

Early on Friday, French forces traded fire with suspected ex-rebels holed up in a volatile neighbourhood. Violence erupted after the overnight death of a Christian taxi driver.

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