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Bangui, Central African Republic (AFP) Dec 09, 2013
A swarm of Bangui residents trailed French troops as they began combing the streets for rogue rebels Monday, egging them on with a deluge of tips and tip-offs.
Almost every confiscated gun is met by cheers as units from France's 1,600-strong "Operation Sangaris" go door-to-door to find weapons.
"We're going from A to B, checking all vehicles and some homes, collecting intel," said one officer who goes by the name of Ludo.
"We seize all weapons. The machetes too are considered weapons, so we confiscate them," he said, a helicopter circling above his armoured convoy.
Sectarian killings left hundreds dead in recent days, many of them hacked to death, and residents of the Central African Republic's capital had shuttered themselves up waiting for the French army to move in.
French troops faced no resistance in claiming control of Bangui but on Monday they turned to the thornier task of disarming militiamen from the mainly Muslim Seleka group.
Near the airport, an exulting crowd looked on as gunmen lay face down on the ground as French soldiers lined up a booty of rocket-launchers and assault rifles.
The French mission is confined to disarming however and the suspects were soon released, to the dismay of a group anxious to see their tormentors bite the dust.
As the search party moved down Boganda, one of Bangui's main avenues, a crowd of residents formed in front of a soap factory they claimed was a Seleka hideout.
"There were a lot of Seleka here. Yesterday, they were shooting at four in the morning," said Bienvenue Goh, an office employee who lives nearby.
"They set out after dark and murder young men. They have treated us like cockroaches for months. The site needs to be searched and their weapons seized," she said.
"There are weapons in there," the excited crowd shouted as the soldiers entered the compound, their French-built Famas assault rifles strapped over their shoulders.
A watchman hailing from neighbouring Chad, which some among the CAR's majority Christians accuse of being behind Seleka, insisted he did not have the key to the main building.
"Tell him to open the door or we'll smash it down," a French lieutenant named Frederic ordered one of his men.
Another guard protested: "We are Muslims, that's why people accuse us."
The impoverished former French colony has been sliding into chaos since a March coup brought Seleka leader Michel Djotodia to power, making him the country's first Muslim president.
While some Seleka fighters remained loyal to him, others went rogue and committed atrocities that have inflamed religious tensions and sparked international concern.
The French soldiers eventually forced their way into the soap factory's main warehouse and uncovered a meagre three Kalashnikov bullets and a few military cots.
Bienvenue Goh was frustrated: "What good is it for us to point out these places if they don't do anything?"
"The Seleka will come back tonight and kill us in revenge," she said, explaining that she feared Seleka informants had spied on the scene.
The French officer tried to reassure the crowd.
"We are disarming. Before, the Seleka had weapons but now they are no longer allowed. If we see them, we'll arrest them.
"It's going to change. They can no longer do what they did before, and they know it."
A few streets further down, traders and shoppers were cautiously returning to the Lakouanga market but fear of a now invisible enemy was all minds.
"We hadn't been out in days. We're taking a risk here but we're hungry and with the French soldiers we are a little bit more confident, but I'm not able to get what I need," said Elise Nzale, standing before a few tomatoes, some rotten.
Another buyer, Arlette Papaye, argued that France's search units would have to probe deeper into Bangui's dark alleys if they want to flush out the Seleka.
"The French have to venture off the main thoroughfares and move deeper inside the neighbourhoods. If they don't, there's no point."
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