BAMBARI, Central African Republic — French forces in Central African Republic fired mortars and exchanged sustained gunfire Saturday with Muslim rebels who controlled the country until earlier this year.

The engagement by the French in the central town of Bambari included targeting and destroying a rebel vehicle by firing on it from a Gazelle helicopter.

French forces fired warning shots and mortars as two rebel vehicles approached a bridge in the town, said a French military officer on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The rebel forces insist the French forces overreacted. Many local residents had earlier demonstrated against the French forces.

The alliance of rebel groups known as Seleka was forced from power in January nearly a year after its fighters overthrew the president. Christian militias have said they are seeking revenge for atrocities committed during Seleka’s rule.

The sectarian violence has left thousands dead and forced nearly 1 million people to flee their homes.