By Jean-Lambert Ngouandji

Bangui - Soldiers launched a heavy attack on the home of Central African Republic President Ange Felix Patasse in an apparent coup attempt early on Monday, sources close to the presidency said.

Witnesses said sounds of clashes appeared to die down in the morning, but occasional bursts of automatic weapons fire could be heard close to the president's residence. Few ventured onto the streets.

"The shooting started at about 2am (0100 GMT). At least four of the presidential guard are killed but we still do not really know what is going on," said one source close to the presidency. It was not clear how the four died.

Residents in other parts of Bangui reported seeing at least one civilian killed - shot in the head and lying on the street - in the capital of the former French colony, which was destabilised by a series of army mutinies in the early 1990s.

State radio station began playing military music at around 5am but no announcement was made. Senior members of the government said they could make no official comment.

"I have been told by the prime minister to stay at home," one minister told Reuters. He would not be named.

Residents said mutinous soldiers appeared to control the streets of southern Bangui, with loyalists holding the north.

The division mirrors the country's ethnic split between Patasse's north and the south, home to his rival and independence President David Dacko, former army ruler Andre Kolingba and the late Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who crowned himself emperor before being toppled in 1979.

The landlocked and impoverished Central African Republic, one of the world's poorest countries despite its diamond mines, has never completely recovered from the mutinies in the 1990s, launched when soldiers were not paid.

The United Nations last year ended a peacekeeping mission it sent in 1999 to replace the French-backed African force which restored order after the mutinies, but UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned in January that peace was in danger.

Civil servants have been on sporadic strike for months to protest at the government's failure to pay up to two years of salary arrears.

Most wages have been left unpaid despite a government promise in March to start paying them and the appointment last month of new Prime Minister Martin Ziguele, who said official salaries would be his priority.

Student groups have consistently demanded the departure of Patasse, who won multi-party elections in 1993 and beat Dacko in 1999 in a ballot the opposition said was tainted by fraud.

The Central African Republic has also suffered as a result of the war in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, from where more than 8 000 refugees have fled since 1998, to live in pitiful conditions in Bangui.

Life expectancy for men is only 46 and for women 51 in the country of more than three million, which stretches from northern savannah to southern rainforest inhabited by pygmies. - Reuters