BANGUI Red Cross workers have recovered 44 bodies from the streets of Central African Republic's capital, Bangui, they said on Thursday after inter-religious fighting in the last two days.
Six Chadian peacekeepers have also been killed in the former French colony, while judicial authorities said they had uncovered a mass grave with 30 bodies, many of them showing signs of torture, near a military base used by Seleka rebels.
The rebels seized power in March, unleashing a wave of looting and killing on the mostly Christian population. Thousands of French and African troops have struggled to contain a flare-up in violence in the last week.
The mostly Muslim Seleka and Christian self-defence militias have carried out tit-for-tat attacks on each other and on the local population.
Georgios Georgantas, head of an International Committee of the Red Cross delegation, said the 44 bodies were probably only a fraction of those killed in Bangui in the last two days, given that his team had been unable to go into parts of the city.
"Violence has been at extremely high levels," Georgantas told Reuters by telephone. "We have information about more bodies in certain parts of town which we have been unable to access because the fighting was so intense."
A representative of medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres at Bangui's main hospital said it had seen more than 50 people since Wednesday night with gunshot or machete wounds from the fighting that raged for hours across Bangui.
A spokesman for the African Union peacekeeping mission (MISCA) said Chadian peacekeepers were attacked by gunmen in the Gabongo neighbourhood near the airport on Wednesday.
"The number of Chadian soldiers killed has risen to six because one of them died from his wounds this morning," Elio Yao told Reuters. He could not give a precise total for the number of African peacekeepers killed so far in the crisis.
Two French troops were killed just days after Paris deployed a 1,600-strong peacekeeping mission in its former colony in early December under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement on Thursday that he was appalled by the continued violence, including the reports of dozens more bodies found on the streets of Bangui.
Ban also said he was saddened by the deaths of the six peacekeepers. "Their mission is to provide desperately needed security. They are not part of the conflict between Central Africans," he said.
Ban is drafting plans for a possible U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was alarmed by this week's attacks on civilians by both Seleka and Christian militia fighters, and "deeply disturbed" by the discovery of the mass grave in Bangui.
"The continued sectarian fighting only deepens the country's wounds and makes reconciliation more difficult," Kerry said in a statement. "The United States calls on the CAR transitional authorities to immediately end the violence, end the use of torture, and investigate and prosecute all those implicated in grave human rights abuses."
The violence eased on Thursday as French peacekeepers took up positions on main roads near the airport and in troubled neighbourhoods, although sporadic shooting was reported in several areas during the morning.
Many say the bloodshed has little to do with religion in a nation where Muslims and Christians have long lived in peace. Instead, they blame a political battle for control over resources in one of Africa's most weakly governed states.
Bangui's public prosecutor, Ghislain Gresenguet, said authorities on Wednesday discovered some 30 bodies clustered near the Roux military camp by a hill on the edge of Bangui. The corpses were scattered over a 200-metre (yard) area.
"Some of the bodies were tied up. Others had big gashes and wounds which showed that they had been tortured," Gresenguet told Radio France International. "They were likely killed somewhere else and dumped there."
The Christian militia, known as 'anti-balaka,' which means anti-machete in the local Sango language, accuse Chadian forces of supporting the Seleka rebels. Chad strongly denies this.
MISCA's commanding officer, Martin Tumenta Chomu, said on Tuesday that Chadian troops would be moved outside the capital to northern Central African Republic. The 4,000-strong MISCA force is scheduled to reach 6,000 soldiers by the end of January.
Colonel Gilles Jaron, spokesman for the French military, said France was deploying troops to flashpoints in the city, such as the Gabongo and Bacongo neighbourhoods.
France's force, code-named Sangaris, has between 1,000 and 1,200 men in Bangui, with the rest deployed in the interior.
"The Sangaris force has not been the target of coordinated attacks. We are the target of sporadic shooting, which we respond to each time," he said.
(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier in Paris, Daniel Flynn in Dakar, Michelle Nichols in New York and Peter Cooney in Washington; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Ruth Pitchford and Ken Wills)