Death Toll Surges in Crisis-Hit Central African Republic

Aid groups say more than 500 dead since Dec. 5 as French troops try to keep the peace

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William Daniels / Panos for TIME

Séléka fighters collected the body of a general who died during the battles launched on the early morning by the anti-balaka, in Bangui on Dec. 5.

The death toll from last week’s bloodshed in Central African Republic has topped 500, aid groups said on Tuesday as France’s expeditionary forces spread out on a mission to restore law and order in its former colony.

In the capital Bangui, Red Cross worker Antoine Mbao Bogo said his counterparts had collected 461 bodies since Dec. 5, when mostly Christian fighters and supporters of ousted President François Bozizé attacked ex-Séléka, the disbanded coalition of rebel groups that forced Bozizé to flee in March. The tally may be higher as it does not include Muslim victims whose bodies were brought to mosques for burial. Last week, photojournalist William Daniels told TIME he counted 58 bodies at the Ali Babolo Mosque in PK5 neighborhood.

The violent uptick occurred hours before the U.N. Security Council approved a resolution to allow France and the African Union to increase its ground presence and use force if necessary.

French President François Hollande traveled to Bangui on Tuesday after attending a memorial for Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who died at 95 last week. His arrival coincided with the news that two French soldiers—responsible for patrolling neighborhoods and disarming ex-Séléka militants and the rival anti-balaka vigilantes—were killed by gunmen.

On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hangel ordered the U.S. military to airlift troops from Burundi into Central African Republic, a predominantly Christian nation of 4.6 million people that has not seen this scale of internecine bloodletting before, in an attempt to quell the violence. A Pentagon spokesman said Hagel’s approval comes after French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian requested help in quickly getting more African peacekeeping troops into the country.

This week, the U.N.’s refugee agency reported an estimated 108,000 people have been displaced in Bangui alone since last Thursday, upping the total across the country to more than half a million since the crisis intensified in December 2012.