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Death toll rises in battles in Central African Republic

By Paul-Marin Ngoupana

BANGUI (Reuters) - The death toll in clashes between gunmen loyal to Central African Republic's former president and the ex-rebels who ousted him, rose to at least 73 following fighting on Monday, residents, government and a regional peacekeeping force said.

A government spokesman accused fighters loyal to former President Francois Bozize of trying to retake power. The latest clashes took place around Bossangoa, in Bozize's home region, about 300 km (185 miles) north of the capital.

Residents in Bouca, a town about 100 km east of Bossangoa, said fighting erupted after about 30 armed men loyal to the former president attacked the town and a former rebel camp.

"I saw seven dead, including four traders. Shops and houses were torched," Josue Mbetigaza a resident who fled the town after the fighting started, told Reuters. He said he had heard later that at least a dozen people were killed in the fighting.

John Nariri, a driver with Medecines Sans Fronteirs in Bouca, said by phone that the medical and humanitarian aid organization had recorded 18 killed and 31 injured in the battle.

The fighting came after a U.N. warning that the country was on the brink of collapse. The former French colony has slipped into chaos since northern rebels captured the capital, Bangui, in March, overrunning South African troops protecting Bozize.

"The defense forces lost five men, and there have been more than 50 killed among the assailants and civilians (during fighting on Saturday and Sunday)," said Guy Simplice Kodegue, a spokesman for Michel Djotodia, the country's new president, who was swept to power by the Seleka rebels.

A commander in the multinational African peacekeeping force said at least 60 people had been killed during the weekend fighting and the situation was chaotic.

The former rebels have been accused by residents, United Nations officials and non-governmental organizations of a wave of killings and abuses that Djotodia has struggled to control.

"Houses were burnt, people were burnt alive including children, women and old people who had nothing to do with the fighting. It is really disgusting," said Kodegue.

Bozize, who fled to neighboring Cameroon, told French media in Paris last month that he still had ambitions of returning to power.

The peacekeeping force confirmed pro-Bozize gunmen were involved in the fighting but said little other information was available.

Crepin Mboli-Goumba, a spokesman for the government, accused Bozize of coordinating the attacks over the weekend and appealed for international intervention to restore order.

"It is an attempt by Bozize and his supporters to take power," he said. "Six towns have been taken. This shows Seleka does not control the situation so we call on the international community to mobilize (peacekeepers) so they can intervene."

It was not possible to contact Bozize for comment or locals to confirm if the towns had been retaken.

Bozize came to power in a 2003 coup and won two subsequent elections. However, his government never stamped its authority on the landlocked nation, which is caught between regional conflicts and local competition over diamonds and gold.

(Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan; Writing by Bate Felix and David Lewis; Editing by Alison Williams and Christopher Wilson)

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