By Antoine Rolland
BANGUI (Reuters) - Rebels in Central African Republic attacked the capital early on Wednesday, but were repelled by President Faustin-Archange Touadera's security forces and United Nations peacekeepers, authorities said, in an escalation of an election conflict.
Helped by newly-arrived troops from Russia and Rwanda, the CAR army has been battling groups seeking to overturn a Dec. 27 vote in which Touadera was declared victor despite fraud claims.
"The attackers who came in large numbers to take Bangui have been vigorously pushed back," Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada said in a post on Facebook.
A Reuters witness heard explosions and later saw helicopters circling, after the rebels attacked on various outskirts, including the north of the city.
In one place, the body of a man in rebel fatigues lay in a garden, while streets were scattered with bullet casings.
The United Nations' 10,000-strong peacekeeping mission said one of their soldiers was also killed.
However, the city appeared calm after 0800 GMT, with security forces patrolling and manning checkpoints.
A U.N. source said around 200 rebels had participated in the attack and remained close to the city. They had previously attacked towns nearby in the former French colony.
"We heard gunfire from six this morning. We're staying home. There's panic. We're scared of stray bullets," said north Bangui resident Rodrigue, who did not give his surname.
THOUSANDS OF REFUGEES
The rebels had sought to take a police station in the northern PK12 district before they were pushed back, the U.N. source added, saying three CAR soldiers were wounded.
The United Nations says former President Francois Bozize is backing the rebels, but he has not directly responded to that.
The gold- and diamond-rich nation of 4.7 million people has suffered bouts of violence since Bozize was ousted in 2013.
The latest flare-up has forced over 30,000 more people to flee to neighbouring countries and led to food shortages and price rises.
The rebels had sought to derail last month's election and have vowed to take Bangui after the vote went ahead amid allegations of irregularities and insecurity preventing people from voting in some parts.
The constitutional court is expected to ratify the final results on Jan. 19.
France has publicly backed Touadera and sent warplanes for two flyovers on Dec. 23 and Jan. 9 to try and deter the rebels.
Touadera is an ally of Russia, a relationship often seen as a threat to France's influence in the French-speaking country.
(Additional reporting by Tangi Salaun in Paris; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Nick Macfie, Giles Elgood and Andrew Cawthorne)