Rebels stormed a Catholic church compound Wednesday in the capital of Central African Republic, killing at least 30 people in a hail of gunfire and grenades, witnesses said.
Islamist fighters from the Seleka coalition, ousted from power nearly five months ago, were blamed for the attack on the compound at the Church of Fatima, where hundreds of civilians had sought refuge from violence ravaging Bangui’s streets.
Catholic churches have served as sanctuaries for Christian and Muslim civilians since the country erupted into sectarian bloodshed in December.
It was feared that the new bloodshed would spark reprisals on the city’s few remaining Muslims, most of whom have fled the city in an exodus this year that the U.N. has described as ethnic cleansing.
“We were in the church when were heard the shooting outside,” the Rev. Freddy Mboula told the Associated Press. “There were screams and after 30 minutes of gunfire there were bodies everywhere.”
About 30 people were killed, according to another priest at the scene, the Rev. Paul Emile Nzale.
An AP reporter counted at least 20 bodies taken to one hospital in the city because the morgue was not in service. At a second hospital, a doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters confirmed that at least three other bodies had been taken there.
A political crisis in the Central African Republic has taken on inter-communal dimensions, stoking hatred among the Christian majority toward a brutal Islamist rebel regime that seized power by force in March 2013. Muslim civilians were largely spared, while the rebels looted, raped and killed Christians.
Most of the sectarian violence in Bangui since January, when the rebels were forced from power, has involved Christian militia fighters targeting Muslims. Previous attacks have launched retaliatory violence in the capital.
The crisis in the Central African Republic has forced nearly 1 million people from their homes, and at one point nearly 100,000 sought shelter on the grounds of the Bangui airport, which has been guarded by French and now other European peacekeepers.