Bangui — Muslim rebels stormed a Catholic church compound in the capital of Central African Republic on Wednesday, killing as many as 30 people in a hail of gunfire and grenades, witnesses said.
The attack on the compound at the Church of Fatima, where hundreds of civilians had sought refuge from the violence ravaging Bangui's streets, is the largest blamed on Muslim fighters since their Seleka coalition was ousted from power nearly five months ago.
Wednesday's attack marked a rare attack on a house of worship, as Catholic churches have served as sanctuaries for both Christian and Muslim civilians since the country erupted into sectarian bloodshed in December.
Fears escalated late Wednesday that the new bloodshed would spark reprisal attacks on the city's few remaining Muslims, most of whom fled the city in a mass exodus earlier this year that the U.N. has described as ethnic cleansing. In the hours that followed, Christian militia fighters began putting up road blockades around Bangui.
"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 in the attack, 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 brought there.
A political crisis took on inter-communal dimensions as hatred among the Christian majority grew toward a brutal Muslim rebel regime that had 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 tit-for-tat retaliatory violence in the capital of Bangui.
Since the ouster of the Muslim rebels, a transitional government led by interim President Catherine Samba Panza has been tasked with organizing elections no later than February 2015. But many observers doubt such a vote can be held because of the ongoing violence, and because rebels destroyed scores of voting lists in the towns they ransacked across the country.
The crisis in 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.