BANGUI (Reuters) - Fierce fighting between militia and U.N. peacekeepers erupted in the Central African Republic on Tuesday as President Catherine Samba-Panza rushed back early from the U.N. General Assembly in a bid to end days of violence in which at least 37 people died.
Ahead of Samba-Panza's arrival, U.N. troops moved to clear barricades on the road from the airport to the center of the capital Bangui, sparking heavy clashes with the anti-balaka militia.
Witnesses reported heavy gunfire and said two helicopters from France's Sangaris peacekeeping mission circled near the airport, opening fire on militia fighters. Calm returned by late afternoon.
It marked a fourth day of clashes since the killing of a Muslim man on Saturday unleashed the worst sectarian violence this year in the former French colony and raised doubts over plans to hold elections.
The vote, scheduled for Oct. 18 but expected to be postponed, is meant to conclude a restoration of democracy after Muslim rebels seized power in the mostly Christian country in 2013, plunging the nation of 4.5 million people into a spiral of religious violence.
Samba-Panza, who took office when Seleka ceded power in 2014 under international pressure, said the unrest was being stoked by supporters of ousted former president Francois Bozize.
"We know that former dignitaries in Central African Republic want to be back in charge," Samba-Panza told France 24 television, before leaving New York.
Bozize, who seized power in a 2003 coup, has demanded a political dialogue after he was barred from contesting the planned election.
Violence and protests against international forces have been reported in several towns in recent days. In Bambari, the headquarters of Seleka's northern fiefdom, the U.N. refugee agency reported gunfire in the streets on Tuesday.
With her government short of the funding to organize elections, Samba-Panza said discussions would be needed with donors to set a new date for the vote.
Talks were expected to take place on Thursday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. However, former colonial power France, which has deployed some 900 peacekeepers, has ruled out any major delay to the electoral timetable.
"Samba Panza is remarkable but she is head of an interim government," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. "Things have been prepared so that elections are held and it is desirable they take place without being delayed."
U.N. officials say the latest violence has driven more than 27,000 people from their homes in Bangui, swelling the Mpoko camp for displaced people next to the airport. Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said it had treated more than 100 people since Saturday, mostly for gunshots and machete wounds.
"I don't think one can overestimate the risk of this getting worse," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news conference in Geneva.
"This is a crucial moment for the Central African Republic."
The Central African regional bloc (CEEAC) called on the United Nations to hand MINUSCA a more robust mandate to tackle violence and to ensure elections take place this year.
A mass breakout of some 500 inmates from the central prison on Sunday night, many of them anti-balaka members, fed fears of an escalation of violence. Opposition parties have called a demonstration for Wednesday.
"We want the redeployment of the Central African army forces throughout the country and the departure of international forces that do absolutely nothing to prevent this crisis," said student Asseni Ngbo Roselin.
Additional reporting by Leger Kokpakpa in Bangui, Daniel Flynn in Dakar, Joe Bavier in Abidjan, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and John Irish in New York; Editing by Andrew Roche