By Mick Krever, CNN
CNN’s Nima Elbagir gave a dramatic account Wednesday from the capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui, of the violence and chaos engulfing that country.
“We travelled down that road from Bossangoa to Bangui and we saw some pretty brazen militia roadblocks along the way,” Elbagir told Christiane Amanpour.
“We were in an U.N. convoy guarded by African peacekeepers and we had to stop like everyone else for the militiamen to open those roadblocks and let us through.”
The country descended into civil war in March when a Muslim rebellion known as “Seleka” overthrew the president, with the C.A.R’s Christian majority saying they became the targets of banditry. Now vigilante Christian groups have joined the fight, targeting Muslims.
France, the former colonial power, has deployed 1,600 personnel to the country to support African Union troops, after a vote last week in the U.N. Security Council authorizing military intervention.
More than 415,000 people - nearly 10% of the population - have been internally displaced by the fighting, according to the United Nations, and 68,000 more have fled to neighboring countries.
French President Francois Hollande, who attended Tuesday’s Johannesburg memorial for Nelson Mandela, travelled to the Central African Republic and was in Bangui on Wednesday.
Elbagir seemed dubious that French forces would be able to do much to rein in the militias.
“It’s really when we got to the gates of Bangui, to the gates of the capital city, that we got a real sense of the challenge facing France,” Elbagir said.
“As we arrived there a fire fight broke out between militia men. This was as Francois Hollande was landing in Bangui – a fire fight broke out between Seleka militiamen and French troops, and we ended up having to take cover behind the French tanks.”
The tension in the country is palpable, she said, reporting that the French may not have been expecting the situation they met on the ground.
“Bangui hasn’t been stabilized as quickly as had been hoped or expected,” she said.
Some of the clashes between the rival militias – Muslim Seleka and Christian Anti-Balaka – have quieted down since the French troops came in, she said, but there were still worrying signs.
“I don’t think France was expecting that kind of bubbling up of really civil violence – the retribution against Muslims, the distribution of machetes.”
“It wasn’t what the French expected to walk into. And there does seem to be a little bit of confusion as to how you go into communities and disarm and disband neighbor trying to kill neighbor. That’s going to be the big challenge here.”
As Elbagir spoke, the thwack-thwack of helicopters could be heard overhead.
“Increasingly they’re doing these patrols just as the sun begins to set here in Bangui, very much maintaining a visible presence.”
Elbagir reported that the sense she has gotten from everyone she’s spoken to is that the country needs “more of everything – more humanitarian aid, more boots on the ground, and more countries willing to step in and stand side-by-side with France.”
CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark and Nima Elbagir contributed to this post.