Bangui - French President Francois Hollande was expected on Tuesday in the Central African Republic, on the second day of an operation to disarm rogue rebels that has already killed two French soldiers.
As the poverty-stricken country's former colonial master led the military effort to restore order after a year of chaos, Washington said it was offering to fly in African peacekeepers.
The French deaths came moments after Paris announced on Monday that the capital Bangui had been largely purged of marauding armed groups.
The two paratroopers were fatally wounded while conducting a night patrol in Bangui, the first casualties since France's 1 600-strong contingent deployed last week.
“They lost their lives to save many others,” said Hollande, who is to stop in Bangui on his way back from South Africa, where he attended a memorial honouring Nelson Mandela.
A year to the day after Seleka - a motley coalition of Muslim rebels and foreign warlords - took up arms, Hollande was to hold talks with their leader turned president, Michel Djotodia.
He was also due to meet Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye and deliver a message of encouragement to his troops, a source at the French presidency said.
Among the leaders gathered in Soweto to celebrate Mandela's life was US President Barack Obama, who on Monday urged the transitional Central African government “to arrest those who are committing crimes.”
The US also said its military would provide C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft to fly African Union peacekeeping troops from Burundi to the Central African Republic.
They will add to 2 500 African Union peacekeeping troops already on the ground as part of the MISCA force.
The French forces had deployed in the wake of days of horrendous fighting in Bangui in which nearly 400 people were killed. The stench of dead bodies still permeates some areas of the capital.
Most of the clashes were between Christian and Muslim militias armed with guns and machetes.
After only a day of vehicle and house searches, the French military had said Monday that all rebel patrols had left Bangui and that the situation was calm.
Besides the incident that killed two French soldiers, AFP reporters in Bangui said that several shops were looted on Tuesday morning and Seleka vehicles still visible.
Swarms of residents anxious to see their tormentors disarmed trailed French soldiers across the streets of Bangui, egging them on and pointing them to alleged Seleka hideouts.
“We have started to go out because the French are here,” said Arlette Papaye, a local tradeswoman.
“We had remained holed up in our homes and cellars. We are hungry. The French must chase out the Seleka.”
Air France announced on Tuesday it had indefinitely suspended its flights to Bangui for security reasons.
Djotodia's Seleka launched their offensive in December 2012 and, after a peace initiative collapsed, captured Bangui and ousted president Francois Bozize in March.
Djotodia became the first Muslim president but while some Seleka members remained loyal to him, others went rogue and government forces were powerless to end their reign of terror.
Months of massacres, rapes and looting spurred a humanitarian catastrophe - a third of the population needs food aid - while the increasingly sectarian nature of the unrest fuelled international fears a genocide was in the making.
The UN children's agency UNICEF told AFP in Bangui that nearly 480 000 people - mostly women and children - had been displaced since the March coup.
The military intervention has prompted some criticism from Hollande's foes at home at a difficult time for the French economy.
Christian Jacob, who heads the right-wing UMP party's parliamentary group, raised concerns over “the length of the intervention, France's isolation and financing.”
Hollande early this year sent troops to another troubled African nation, Mali, to stop Islamists and Tuareg rebels from advancing on the capital Bamako.
But Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the cost of the deployment was “minimal” as the French troops were drawn from bases in other African countries.
“If we did not intervene quickly it would have cost much more,” he told France Inter radio.
France has also been anxious to avoid charges of meddling in its former African colony for political or economic reasons.
It has repeatedly emphasised it is ultimately Africa's responsibility to tackle the various crises on the continent. - AFP