Several thousand Muslim supporters of the Central African Republic's former rebel group Seleka protested Sunday against French troops conducting a disarmament operation.
The demonstration in the capital Bangui marked the most significant show of hostility towards France since it deployed troops on December 5 to end the chaos that followed Seleka's coup in March.
"No to France", the protesters chanted, calling French President Francois Hollande a "criminal" and complaining that his troops had only come to protect Christians.
"This is a murderous operation, they want to divide us Central Africans. They have come to impose their will and make us kill eachother," shouted one protester.
The protest swelled after three ex-Seleka fighters were killed in clashes with French troops, according to Muslim residents and a leader of the former rebel outfit.
The French army confirmed its troops had opened fire on suspected Seleka gunmen it said had trained their weapons on them but could not ascertain a death toll.
Seleka faction chief Abacar Sabone said the three fighters "were armed, it's true, but had not been threatening the French and did not use their weapons."
An AFP video journalist said the demonstrators marched from the city centre to the Muslim neighbourhood of PK5 before dispersing peacefully.
A French army spokesman in Paris, Colonel Pascal Georgin, acknowledged a "clearly anti-French demonstration" but put the number of participants at around 100.
France has deployed 1,600 soldiers to its former colony to bolster an African force MISCA, which had been struggling to cope with an outbreak of Christian-Muslim violence.
Muslims claim French bias
Reports of the three fighters' death Sunday had sparked a smaller, earlier protest which soldiers from MISCA's Congolese contingent broke up with tear gas, witnesses said.
The country's new leader, Michel Djotodia, has disbanded the Seleka rebel coalition that brought him to power nine months ago but some members have gone rogue.
Months of killing, raping and pillaging had caused growing international concern of a major humanitarian crisis and prompted Christians to form vigilante groups.
The French intervention has been largely welcomed by the Christian majority but many Muslims argue operations against the remnants of Seleka have left them exposed to reprisals.
Vigilante groups and mobs have attacked Muslim residents and ransacked Muslim-owned shops in recent days, despite efforts by political and religious leaders to defuse sectarian tensions.
Djotodia, Central Africa's first Muslim leader, urged all armed groups to lay down their arms and avert an escalation.
"I reiterate my entire availability to discuss with all those who have taken up arms, rightly or wrongly, so that we will finally all be disarmed without exception," he said.
Djotodia, who is supposed to step aside at the end of next year following elections, said: "Let us now transform our machetes, guns and other arms into ballots."
Neighbouring Chad, which is one of MISCA's top troop contributors, announced Saturday it would step up efforts to repatriate its most vulnerable citizens.
"The government cannot stand idly by in the face of a surge of violence and hatred against our compatriots living on Central African soil," Chadian Prime Minister Kalzeube Payimi Deubet said.
Officially, the troubled country is home to a diaspora of some 15,000 Chadians, but Muslim northerners are often referred to also as Chadians.
Many in Bangui accuse Chad, whose President Idriss Deby Itno has been the perennial kingmaker in the Central African Republic, of masterminding the Seleka rebellion.
While Chadian troops are only one component of the 3,700-strong MISCA, African commanders admit that they have been following their own agenda.
French soldiers have told AFP reporters in Bangui that Chadian peacekeepers have been giving armbands from the African force to Seleka fighters to help them evade disarmament efforts.