At least 22 people were killed in a string of raids on villages in Central African Republic this week, a local official and state radio said on Friday, as an escalation in violence threatened to derail a visit by the pope and crucial elections.
Pope Francis has already hinted that his trip, scheduled for November 28 and 29, could be canceled if the attacks worsen, though government and church authorities in the capital Bangui have sought to offer assurances that the visit will be peaceful.
Earlier, the Catholic Herald reported that the trip is likely to go ahead, with the Pope also committed to visiting Kenya and Uganda. "The whole population is now actively preparing itself," said Mgr Cyriaque Gbate Doumalo, secretary-general of the bishops' conference. "We think we can maintain security at least in the capital, Bangui. For the moment, there's no reason or justification to place the visit in doubt."
The former French colony descended into inter-religious violence two and a half years ago after mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power, sparking reprisal killings by Christian anti-balaka militias.
Gunmen cut the throats of 10 people in the village of Ndassima on Monday before carrying out an overnight attack nearby in Mala, said local administrator Yves Mbetigaza.
"They came from two places, some from Bambari and others from Mbres," he said.
While a report on national radio described the attackers only as armed members of the Peul ethnic group, Mbetigaza said they were Seleka fighters, adding that eight villagers were kidnapped in Mala and dozens of others were missing.
Six hunters were killed on Thursday in the village of Bandambou, Mbetigaza said.
The killings put the death toll from violence this week at over 30. And though dozens have died in inter-religious fighting in Bangui since late September, the village raids highlight the rampant insecurity that plagues much of the countryside.
French soldiers and UN peacekeepers have struggled to contain the recent flare-up. The UN mission, known as MINUSCA, plans to add some 750 troops and 140 police before elections scheduled for Dec. 27.
The polls are meant to restore democratic rule more than two years after Seleka toppled President Francois Bozize and his government. Central African Republic is currently governed by a transitional authority.
Some of the UN troops should be in place in time for the pope's visit and France has paused a drawdown of its Sangaris mission until after the elections.
A French defence ministry official said Paris had nonetheless warned the Catholic Church of the potential security issues.
"We've informed the Vatican authorities that Pope Francis' visit carries risks for himself and for hundreds of thousands of believers who could be there to see him in a pre-election period," the official said.