Dec 18, 9:02 AM EST

Official: 28 die in clashes in Central African Republic

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BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) -- Clashes in Central African Republic between Muslim and Christian fighters have killed 28 people, left dozens wounded and sent civilians fleeing for safety, a Red Cross official said Thursday.

The fighting began Tuesday in Mbres when a member of a Christian militia was killed by a grenade allegedly thrown by a group of Muslims, according to a pastor in the town.

The violence escalated when Christian fighters counter-attacked and members of the country's Muslim rebel alliance arrived from a nearby town to join the melee.

Ahamat Ibrahim Nedjad, a spokesman for the Muslim fighters, confirmed the clashes, but he said his group was attacked first and fought back.

Gunfire could still be heard on Thursday morning. The town has largely emptied out, with civilians fleeing their homes for the bush and local officials taking shelter in another town, the pastor said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear for his safety.

The fighting killed 28 and wounded dozens, said the Red Cross official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. He said 70 homes were burned.

Central African Republic has been rocked over the past year by sectarian violence that has killed at least 5,000 people. U.N. peacekeepers are trying to stabilize the country, and both the Christian militia and Muslim rebels have agreed to put down their arms, but splinter groups of fighters have continued to clash.

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