Bangui - The head of African peacekeepers in the Central African Republic said Wednesday that vigilante groups known as "anti-balaka" will be considered and treated as "enemies" from now on.
The announcement by Congolese General Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko followed days of fighting in which around 20 people died and peacekeepers were fired on in the former French colony.
"From now on, we consider the anti-balaka as enemies of [the African peacekeeping force] MISCA," Mokoko said in remarks carried by a private radio station. "And we will treat them as such."
"They even fire on people who are here to try to end this crisis on behalf of the Central African people to which they belong," the general said.
He said MISCA blames the majority Christian anti-balaka for attacks against the peacekeepers, who are working alongside French troops, to disarm both sides in a year of inter-religious violence in the impoverished majority-Christian nation.
Muslim residents of Bangui have been besieged for weeks by the anti-balaka as well as by looters in the PK-5 commercial district of the city.
Both French and African troops opened fire during the weekend fighting, according to military officials. Local residents said they shot dead eight members of the anti-balaka, including a militia leader.
Catastrophic humanitarian situation
Also Wednesday, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, arrived in Bangui at the start of a three-day visit to the capital and the northeast of the country, the ICRC said in a statement.
"Months of unprecedented armed conflict and inter-religious violence have caused a catastrophic humanitarian situation," the statement said, noting that it has some 400 workers on the ground in the impoverished country.
Monday was the first anniversary of the toppling of Francois Bozize by mainly Muslim rebels of the Seleka movement led by Michel Djotodia.
The so-called "anti-balaka" militias were formed in response to killing and pillaging by the Seleka rebels who went rogue after the coup.
Anti-balaka means "anti-machete" in the local Sango language and refers to the weapon of choice wielded by the Seleka - but also taken up by the vigilantes.
Thousands have been killed and around a quarter of the country's 4.6 million people - most of them Muslims - displaced.
For those who have stayed at home, the situation has become "unbearable", emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert, said on Friday.