2 French Soldiers Die in Central African Republic

PARIS - Two French soldiers were killed in combat in Central African Republic's capital, President Francois Hollande's office announced Tuesday, the first French casualties since he ordered a stepped-up military presence in the restive former colony to help quell inter-religious violence.

The presidential Elysee Palace, in a statement, provided no details about the killings in Bangui late Monday other than that they died during France's mission to restore security, protect civilians, and ensure access for humanitarian groups in the impoverished country.

French officials have warned of the dangers of the enhanced military mission alongside African Union troops, authorized under a muscular mandate approved last week by the United Nations Security Council. France's defense minister has warned militia groups to disarm peacefully - or French troops will do it by force.

The announcement of the deaths came shortly after the presidential palace said Hollande would travel to Central African Republic on Tuesday after attending a memorial in South Africa to Nelson Mandela.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French forces were conducting patrols by foot and vehicle through the dusty streets of Bangui. At one point, they intervened to pull away a Muslim man, who claimed to be a merchant, from a mob that accused him of being a rebel leader.

Muslim rebels known as Seleka overthrew the government of this majority Christian nation nine months ago.

Bouts of violence in Central African Republic took an especially bloody turn last week with more than 400 deaths in two days of violence between Christians and Muslims. World leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama have called for calm.

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