BANGUI Looters and gunmen roamed the streets of Central African Republic's capital Bangui on Tuesday as rebels and regional peacekeepers struggled to restore order two days after a coup plunged the mineral-rich country into chaos.
The ousting of President Francois Bozize and the political turmoil around it has raised fears of a humanitarian crisis in the former French colony - and embarrassed regional power South Africa which had sent troops to defend the government.
About 5,000 Seleka rebel fighters poured into the capital on Sunday, brushing aside a 400-strong South African force which attempted to block their path. At least 13 South African soldiers were killed and 27 wounded.
Rebel leader and self-proclaimed president Michel Djotodia - who had accused Bozize of breaking past peace accords - on Monday asked regional peacekeepers stationed in the country to help him restore order.
Having run out of supplies during the rebel takeover, hungry residents flocked to markets on Tuesday. But sporadic gunfire rang out across the sprawling riverside capital, home to 600,000 people. Water returned but power was down for a fourth day running.
A senior officer from the roughly 1,000-strong five-nation regional force FOMAC, which has been patrolling in an effort to stop the looting, said the situation was gradually improving. But many inhabitants said they were desperate.
"We have the impression that Central African Republic is a forgotten nation," said Yves Ganazohi, a resident of Bangui's Miskin neighbourhood, as shots rang out. "We appeal to the international community to help us now."
FOMAC commanders have been trying to persuade Seleka leaders to get their fighters - a ragtag group of mostly northern insurgents, many of them children - off the streets and into barracks amid concerns they were behind some of the looting.
Djotodia suspended the constitution and imposed a curfew in the wake of the coup, which was strongly condemned by the United Nations and the African Union.
"Stop that or we will shoot you. We have a presidential decree to do so," General Arda Ahkoma, head of a Seleka unit responsible for restoring order, shouted at a looter wearing military fatigues and carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
SETBACK FOR SOUTH AFRICA
The youth was disarmed by Ahkoma's soldiers, and stripped of his military uniform and weapon. The rebel general said that many civilians were taking up arms and disguising themselves as Seleka fighters to take advantage of the chaos.
"Within a week we will have looting under control," he said.
Djotodia pledged on Monday to name a power-sharing government and to set elections after three years in a bid to defuse international criticism of the coup.
The removal of Bozize, who himself seized power in a coup backed by Chad in 2003, was the latest of many rebellions since the poor, landlocked country won independence from France in 1960. Bozize fled to neighbouring Cameroon.
As rebels approached, former colonial power France made it clear it would not intervene. Paris has long said its days as "Africa's policeman" have passed.
Bozize turned instead to regional power South Africa, which has been trying to build up its influence in the resource-rich territory.
"This is complete disaster for South Africa," said Thierry Vircoulon, Central African specialist at the International Crisis Group. "They did not at all understand they were backing the wrong horse. They did not consult within the region."
Seleka, a rebel coalition, took a series of towns and came close to the capital last year, after accusing Bozize of failing to honour an earlier peace deal to give its fighters cash and jobs in exchange for laying down their arms.
Chad and other regional powers sent in troops to back the government and that revolt ended in a January peace accord.
But Seleka last week said the government had again failed to implement agreements - to incorporate its fighters into the army and get the foreign troops withdrawn - and started a lightning advance on Bangui.
Despite rich deposits of gold, diamonds and uranium, Central African Republic remains one of the world's least developed nations.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis and David Lewis; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Pravin Char)