Bangui - The African peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic declared war on the majority-Christian vigilante groups known as "anti-balaka" on Wednesday after a fresh outbreak of deadly violence in the capital Bangui.
The head of the Misca force blamed the groups for recent attacks on peacekeepers in the former French colony, and said they would be treated as "enemies".
"From now on, we consider the anti-balaka as enemies of Misca," Congolese General Jean-Marie Michel 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.
"We hold them responsible for attacks that have targeted our troops in recent days."
Around 20 people have died in clashes involving armed groups and foreign peacekeepers since Saturday in Bangui, where security is tight ahead of the first anniversary of the toppling of Francois Bozize by majority-Muslim Seleka rebels.
Around 6 000 African peacekeepers are working alongside nearly 2 000 French troops to disarm both sides after a year of inter-religious violence sparked by the coup in the impoverished majority-Christian nation.
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.
Amnesty International warned on Wednesday that the country faces an "even greater humanitarian crisis" if the European Union did not act soon to send troops to contain the escalating violence.
"The EU's immediate deployment of troops is literally a life-and-death decision," said Central Africa researcher Christian Mukosa in a statement.
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 recent fighting, according to military officials. Local residents said they shot dead eight members of the anti-balaka, including a militia leader.
Mokoko's comments came as the UN's expert on the CAR warned that serious rights abuses were going unpunished.
"The human rights situation has continued to deteriorate since the crisis began, despite all the efforts deployed by the new authorities and the international community," said Marie-Therese Keita Bocoum in a report published Wednesday.
"Violations and the most appalling kinds of abuses are taking place without any form of justice," said Bocoum, who visited the country this month.
Bocoum named the anti-balaka, but also said the Lord's Resistance Army - which originated in Uganda - was partly responsible for a spike in attacks on Muslims.
Catastrophic humanitarian situation
Underscoring global concern about the situation, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, arrived in Bangui on Wednesday for a three-day visit.
"Months of unprecedented armed conflict and inter-religious violence have caused a catastrophic humanitarian situation," said the ICRC, which has 400 workers in CAR.
The international forces initially focused on disarming Seleka fighters, and have been accused of acting too slowly against the anti-balaka - a charge they have always denied.
But now foreign peacekeepers and the Central African authorities have warned of the need to address abuses by the anti-balaka.
Responding to Mokoko's allegations, Emotion Brice Namsio, who describes himself as an anti-balaka coordinator, denied that the vigilantes had fired on peacekeepers.
Misca troops "began firing on peaceful civilians and everyone always wants to pin the blame on the anti-balaka," he told reporters.
"The anti-balaka... are not enemies of the peace, rather, it is Misca that is an enemy of the central African people."