BANGUI: The death toll from clashes in the Central African Republic has surged to around 100, local officials said Wednesday of violence that erupted hours after the government signed a truce with rebel groups.
The bloodshed, which left dozens more injured, dashed hopes of an end to the simmering sectarian violence which has blighted the country since 2013, pitting Christian anti-Balaka militias against mainly Muslim ex-Seleka rebels.
Shooting erupted early on Tuesday in the central town of Bria and by midnight (2300 GMT) security sources and NGOs said some 40 people had been killed with another 43 wounded.
But by Wednesday morning, the death toll had risen to around 100, according to the town's mayor Maurice Belikoussou and its parish priest Gbenai.
The fighting began just hours after Bangui reached a deal with rebel groups on an immediate ceasefire in an agreement brokered by a Catholic group in Rome.
Since mid-May, Bria and several other southeastern towns -- Bangassou, Alindao and Mobaye -- have been engulfed by violence.
By the end of the month, the fighting had already killed 300 people, wounded 200 and displaced 100,000 others, the UN's humanitarian organisation (OCHA) and the government said.
In Bria alone, the violence has forced more than 40,000 people out of their homes, OCHA figures show, with more forced to flee in Tuesday's fighting.
"The warring parties burned villages and neighbourhoods of Bria, forcing more of the population out with many fleeing into the bush," local MP Arsene Kongbo told AFP on Wednesday.
- 'Defending ourselves' -
Monday's short-lived agreement, which was announced after five days of talks in Rome, had been hailed as a precious chance to stabilise one of the world's most volatile and poorest countries.
Under the deal, which was signed by 13 of the 14 rebel factions in CAR, armed groups were to be granted political representation in exchange for an end to attacks and blockades.
But just hours later, intense shooting began with dozens taken to hospital with bullet wounds, a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) representative in Bria said.
"We signed the agreement, but we have to defend ourselves," said Djamil Babanani, spokesman for the FPRC (Popular Front for the Renaissance of Central Africa), a Seleka faction which signed the ceasefire deal.
"We can't allow an attack to happen without reacting."
Sporadic fighting had erupted in the town on Saturday after one of the FPRC's leaders, Hamad Issa, was killed, prompting clashes with the anti-Balaka militia, several sources said.
The bloodshed prompted urgent calls from the UN for an immediate halt to the violence.
"It is vital that the cease-fire agreed upon by the parties comes into force immediately to free the populations and the many regions of the country that are still suffering from armed violence," said Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, the UN's special representative in Central Africa.
"This violence has also forced more than 100,000 people to flee inside the country and more than 20,000 others to seek refuge in the Democratic Republic of Congo," he said, referring to the overall effect of unrest across CAR since mid-May.
"The total number of internally displaced persons has, therefore, surpassed the 500,000 mark."
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch on Wednesday released a report highlighting the plight of people with disabilities in CAR, saying they had faced violent attacks and were especially vulnerable while trying to flee.
One of the world's poorest nations, CAR has been struggling to recover from a civil war between Muslim and Christian militias that started in 2013 when President Francois Bozize was overthrown by a coalition of Muslim-majority rebel groups called the Seleka.
Christians, who account for about 80 percent of the population, then sought revenge by organising vigilante units dubbed "anti-balaka", in reference to the machetes used by the rebels.
In 2014, the Seleka were ousted by a military intervention led by former colonial ruler France, triggering the bloodiest sectarian violence in the country's history.