Bangui - At least seven people were killed in overnight clashes in the Central African Republic's capital of Bangui, according to a compiled toll on Thursday from the Red Cross and AFP.
The renewed violence came as the highly unstable country's transitional parliament was meeting to elect a new interim president, after strongman Michel Djotodia resigned last week under intense regional pressure.
AFP reporters saw the bodies of three people, including a teenage boy, killed by bullets in a city mosque, while the country's Red Cross office said it had collected the corpses of four men killed by machete.
Tensions remained high in the city, where French troops were patrolling in a bid to quell unrest that has grown between Muslim former rebels and the Christian majority in the wake of a coup that last year plunged the poor, landlocked country into chaos.
Some residents of the northern district where the bloodshed took place accused the French soldiers of shooting people during a search. "They fired at the three men," said a youth, pointing to spent shells.
However, the French army acknowledged that there had been a clash but denied any link with the deaths. "At the end of yesterday afternoon we were challenged by unidentified armed elements. We fired back but there is no confirmation of the toll. The three dead have nothing to do with the clash," a military source said.
Members of the transitional national council (CNT), which serves as a parliament, on Wednesday failed to agree on the criteria for eligibility of a new head of state, said Lea Kouyassoum Doumta, who heads the assembly.
The main obstacle arose from an official international request that none of the 135 members of the CNT should be eligible for the top job, in order to make a clean break from the Djotodia regime formed after his rebels brought him to power last March.
Parliamentary sources said that an agreement should be reached during a public plenary session on Thursday and that once details were settled, the CNT could consider potential candidates and then elect a new leader, at the end of the week or next Monday.
Country should select 'leaders of integrity'
"The council has an historic opportunity to put the country on a path toward stability, democracy, and development, and we encourage the council to seize this opportunity by selecting leaders of integrity who can restore stability to the Central African Republic," US deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Wednesday.
While Djotodia held power, unprecedented hostility grew between Muslims against Christians, since atrocities by his former rebels led to the creation of armed Christian self-defence groups, also accused of major rights abuses at the cost of thousands of lives.
About a fifth of the population of 4.6 million has been displaced or fled murder, rape and pillage according to the United Nations, while 100 000 people from Bangui headed to an overcrowded tent city by the airport, where 1 600 French troops are based alongside an African force known as MISCA.
One task of these forces is to disarm the armed gangs and provide security. On Wednesday, the African Union urged central African countries to strengthen the MISCA force from less than 4 000 to 6 000.
Relief agencies have warned of a humanitarian disaster and are making efforts to feed people, help run crowded hospitals and provide vaccination for measles, which can be deadly when hygiene is lacking.
Muslim civilians were still on the run on Thursday morning, heading for neighbouring Chad. AFP journalists saw dozens of people packed into lorries headed north and accompanied by Chadian MISCA troops.