People attend mass at St. Paul’s church in Bangui Dec. 8, 2013. Relative calm returned to the Central African Republic on Sunday after three days of heavy fighting between Christians and Muslims, with France saying many thousands would have died had its troops not intervened. (STRINGER/REUTERS)

France said it would start disarming fighters in the Central African Republic by force if necessary Monday, as relative calm returned to the capital, Bangui, after three days of heavy fighting between Christians and Muslims.

Residents reported sporadic gunfire from some Bangui neighborhoods Sunday after the violence, in which the Red Cross said at least 394 people had died.

The morgue at Bangui’s Hospital Communautaire was full, a Reuters correspondent saw, with bodies piled there and in the hospital’s corridors.

France is deploying 1,600 troops to its former colony after the U.N. Security Council on Thursday authorized Paris to use force to help African peacekeepers struggling to restore order. The African Union force is due to be increased to 6,000 from 3,500.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said fighters must hand over their weapons. “It’s from tomorrow that the disarmament will start. First we’ll ask nicely, and if they don’t react, we’ll do it by force,” he said in an interview on the French television station LCI on Sunday.

The Central African Republic has slid into chaos as the interim president, Michel Djotodia, struggled to control his loose band of Seleka fighters, who have attacked members of the Christian majority and prompted them to organize militias to defend themselves.

Despite a government order for the gunmen to return to their barracks, another Reuters reporter witnessed fighters in camouflage uniforms driving around in pickup trucks near the presidential palace and in clear view of French patrols.

Militia still operating

“Seleka has not been confined. They are still operating in the city,” said Joseph Bindoumi, president of the Central African League for the Defense of Human Rights.

The country, rich in gold, diamonds and uranium, has seen little but conflict and political instability since independence from France in 1960. The Red Cross reported 394 dead since the latest wave of killings began Thursday.

Pastor Antoine Mbao Bogo, president of the Red Cross in the republic, told Reuters that his group planned to prepare two grave sites — one for Christians and one for Muslims.

Residents of both faiths have huddled in churches for protection from the armed groups.

Thousands attended a service Sunday morning at a church in Bangui. Makeshift beds in the church were temporarily removed to allow space for prayer benches, but worshipers spilled into the courtyard.

“We need today to promote interreligious dialogue to transform the dynamic of violence and war into a dynamic of peace and solidarity,” Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga said at the service.

The church is struggling to provide funerals for members of its congregation, said Bishop Nestor Aziagba, who assisted at Sunday’s service. “Men can’t leave their homes, and women are taking the risk of taking the bodies and digging their own holes to bury them,” he told Reuters.

State of mourning

Djotodia on state radio Saturday called for three days of national mourning.

French helicopters flew low over Bangui while French soldiers patrolled the capital and Bossangoa, about 180 miles to the north.

Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch emergency director, said the first French helicopter had arrived in Bossangoa. “Every French move reassures the population,” he said on his Twitter feed.

France wants elections brought forward to next year, putting an end to the interim period originally scheduled to run into 2015.

Djotodia, who blames the recent attacks on gunmen loyal to his ousted predecessor, François Bozizé, acknowledged Sunday that he had received the French proposal and said it was under consideration.

Children caught in middle

The United Nations has estimated that as many as 6,000 child soldiers have been drawn into the latest violence, and aid workers say many of the victims have been children.

Souleymane Diabate of the children’s rights organization UNICEF said many children were being brought to hospitals with wounds. “We are living through a major crisis, and children haven’t been spared,” he said.

— Reuters