CAR fighters attack church

The attack in Bambari comes a day before French Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was due to visit.

FILE: The attack in Bambari came just a day before French Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was due to visit the town. Picture: AFP.

BANGUI - Rebel fighters killed "many" people in an attack on a church compound in the Central African Republic on Monday where thousands of civilians had taken refuge, Catholic Church officials said.

The attack in Bambari, 380 km northwest of the capital Bangui, came just a day before French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was due to visit the town, where a grenade attack injured seven French soldiers last week.

Church officials said fighters from the Seleka rebel movement entered St. Joseph's Cathedral around 3pm.

"We don't have the exact death toll yet, but many people have been killed. As I'm speaking to you, they are still there," the Rev. Jesus Martial Dembele, vicar general for the archdiocese of Bangui, told Reuters.

Between 4,000 and 6,000 mainly Christian civilians live at the cathedral, church officials said.

Reverend Firmin Gbagoua, a priest at the cathedral, said the attackers believed that Christian militia fighters, known as anti-balaka or anti-machete, were based inside.

"They came in. They are killing people," a nun inside the compound told Reuters during the attack before quickly hanging up the phone. Further attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.

Bambari is home to Seleka's military headquarters.

A Seleka official told Reuters the group had been attacked by anti-balaka fighters.

"All we did was retaliate," said Ahmat Negad, one of the group's spokesmen in Bambari.

The Catholic Church's Dembele accused the French forces of not stepping in to prevent the attack.

However, a French military spokesman said French troops had intervened around 4pm.

"We immediately returned fire and in all likelihood inflicted losses on that group," the military spokesman, Gilles Jaron, said.

He declined to say by which group he believed the shots had been fired.

"Currently we are present around the bishopric to protect that population," he said.

A resident of Bambari said a French military helicopter was flying over the town by late afternoon.