A Seleka fighter is seen in a village close to the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. File picture: Goran Tomasevic

Bangui, Central African Republic -

Central African Republic President Catherine Samba Panza on Wednesday accused militias of “barbaric and criminal” acts after 26 civilians seeking shelter at a church were killed this week.

“These events show that enemies of peace are persisting on an evil path of violence and intercommunal hatred,” Samba Panza said in a statement.

Her office later announced that there would be three days of mourning for those killed in the latest attack, beginning on Thursday, and ordered flags flown at half mast.

Eleven women were among the 26 killed in Monday's attack on civilians sheltered at a church in the central region of Bambari, according to a new figure released by the local Red Cross.

Thirty-five people were also injured when gunmen torched tents and opened fire on the shelter housing thousands of people at the Saint Joseph Catholic Church.

An officer with the African Union's peacekeeping force MISCA said that the site had been attacked by armed men wearing military uniforms and tunics linked to the majority-Muslim Seleka rebels.

Both Seleka rebels and Christian vigilante groups have been accused of atrocities against civilians during the recent unrest, with tit-for-tat violence over the last year claiming thousands of lives and displacing about a quarter of the population.

“This cycle of reprisal attacks between armed groups in Ouaka (the region around Bambari) - where Christians and Muslims once lived in perfect harmony - is deeply worrying,” Samba Panza said in a statement.

The Seleka rebel group said that they had attacked the church because they believed that members of the Christian anti-balaka militia were among those sheltering in the church.

“That is the reason why we launched an attack,” said military spokesman Ahmad Nejad.

Calling on the international community to help stem the violence, the president said civilians on both sides were paying the “price for the weaknesses of the security and armed forces”, some of whom had abandoned their units to fight with the anti-balaka militia.

The latest unrest in the chronically unstable nation began in March 2013 when the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel coalition toppled the ruling regime and put Michel Djotodia - the country's first Muslim leader - in power.

Djotodia stepped down last January under strong international pressure for his failure to rein in rogue ex-rebels, who relentlessly murdered, raped and looted civilians.

In response, largely Christian communities formed “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) vigilante forces who hunted down Muslims in revenge attacks.

Despite the presence of international peacekeepers in the country, the violence has continued. On Tuesday, France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned while on a visit to the country that unless there was a ceasefire “there is no future for the Central African Republic”.

A national reconciliation forum is scheduled to take place later this month, between July 21 and 23, in Brazzaville in neighbouring Congo. - Sapa-AFP