French soldiers killed in Central African Republic

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Media captionThe BBC's Thomas Fessy: "The entire Muslim community of this town has moved to the school following the attack last week"

Two French soldiers have been killed in combat in the Central African Republic, the French presidency says.

It says President Francois Hollande, who is now in the CAR, "learned with deep sadness" that the two had been killed overnight in the capital Bangui.

They are the first French deaths since France deployed 1,600 soldiers to the CAR last week in a UN-backed operation.

The CAR has been in chaos since rebel leader Michel Djotodia ousted President Francois Bozize in March.

Fuelled by ethnic rivalries, the conflict has also now become sectarian in nature as he installed himself as the first Muslim leader in the Christian-majority country sparking months of bloody clashes between rival Muslim and Christian fighters.

Claude Bartolone, speaker of France's National Assembly, told reporters that the two paratroopers had been involved in a clash near Bangui airport.

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Media captionBBC Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman explains the background to the crisis

"They were injured and very quickly taken to the surgical unit, but unfortunately they could not be saved," he said.

A statement from President Hollande's office said the soldiers had "lost their lives to save many others".

"The president expresses his profound respect for the sacrifice of these two soldiers and renews his full confidence in the French forces committed - alongside African forces - to restoring security in the Central African Republic, to protecting the people and guaranteeing access to humanitarian aid," it said.

Image caption Fighting between Christians and mainly Muslim Seleka rebels has claimed many lives
Image caption A Christian mob attacked a mosque in Bangui on Tuesday

President Hollande, who attended Nelson Mandela's memorial service in South Africa, has now arrived in Bangui. He is accompanied by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

The BBC's Thomas Fessy in the northern town of Bossangoa says French troops - along with African peacekeepers - launched an operation on Monday to forcibly disarm militiamen as well as predominantly Muslim fighters who claimed to be part of the new national army.

Tensions remain high in the country, our correspondent adds.

Extra French troops were sent into the CAR last Friday after the UN Security Council backed a mandate to restore order "by all necessary measures" the previous evening.

The UN resolution followed a surge of violence involving Christian self-defence militias that had sprung up after a series of attacks by mainly Muslim fighters from the former rebel coalition.

The Red Cross said 394 people were killed in three days of fighting in Bangui. Many of the victims are believed to have been children.

The French army said it has restored some stability in the capital by Monday night.

Following a request from France, the US announced on Monday it would help fly African Union peacekeeping troops into the CAR.

Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered US forces "to begin transporting forces from Burundi to the Central African Republic," his spokesman said.

US President Barack Obama has called for calm and asked the CAR's transitional government to arrest those who are committing crimes.

France's defence minister has said fighters loyal to interim president Michel Djotodia must return to barracks and the other fighters would have to surrender their weapons.

France said on Saturday that the African Union would increase the size of its existing force of 2,500 peacekeepers to 6,000.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that as many as 9,000 peacekeepers would be required in the CAR, and he hoped they would eventually become a United Nations operation.

An estimated 10% of the CAR's 4.6 million people have fled their homes, while more than a million urgently need food aid, according to the UN.