%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:; AUDIO:%)

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) _ U.N. workers ferried more than 1,000 Congo refugees to their native lands across central Africa's Oubangui River to save them from mob reprisals for looting and rape by Congo rebel fighters imported to defend the Central African Republic president from a coup attempt.

The Congo refugees say they are now more threatened by the uprising in the Central African Republic than in their own troubled country.

``They killed my best friend on Wednesday. I was on my way to meet him when I saw his body on the side of the road,'' said Papy Nzanoa Mondulu, 23, who came to the Central African Republic two years ago to escape the war in his Congo homeland.

``I can never come back here after what I've seen,'' Mondulu said as he waited with other refugees for a trip across the river that separates the two countries.

An estimated 400,000 refugees from Congo live in the Central African Republic. Many came to escape the Congo war _ a four-year, six-nation conflict that has left some 2.5 million dead.

The Central African Republic government, faced with the latest in a series of coup attempts last month, sought defense from a Congo rebel group and Libyan soldiers loaned by Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

But the Congo rebels, ill-disciplined and drunk, preyed on the residents of the country they were invited to protect.

Rebels looted homes and raped entire households of women and children, according to authorities and residents of the capital Bangui.

In the aftermath, Congo refugees no longer felt safe in their adopted land, said U.N. refugee agency representative Emile Elike Segbor said.

``They say they are victims of Central Africans who want vengeance because of attacks on the local population by Congolese fighters,'' Segbor said.

Most Congolese who boarded ferries Sunday left with just the clothes they were wearing and returned to an uncertain future.

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees coordinated the voyage across the nearly 1 mile wide river that separates the Central African Republic and Congo. About 600 were expected to travel Sunday and 400 left on Saturday, Segbor said.

The Central African Republic, a landlocked country nearly the size of Texas, is one of the continent's most tumultuous countries. It has weathered nine coups or attempted rebellions since gaining independence from France in 1960.

In an attack on Oct. 25, rebel troops loyal to former army chief Francois Bozize were the latest to try to take the capital and the country's diamond, gold and uranium reserves. Insurgents closed to within two blocks of Patasse's presidential residence.

Patasse clung to power thanks only to alliances with Gadhafi and Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, who has been fighting for four years to overthrow the Congo government.

Libyan troops and Congolese rebel repelled the coup forces after five days of fighting.

The Central African Republic's own army is small, ill-equipped and mutiny-prone. Patasse himself said he has no faith in it.

Many of Central African Republic's troops reportedly stayed in their barracks during the latest uprising, leaving foreign forces to defend the government.

Since then, the widespread looting and the raping of women and children by Congolese rebels has led opposition parties and human rights groups to call for Patasse's dismissal.

Jean Guengando, a commissioner for the national police, said police verified many of the accounts of abuse.

Fearing reprisals, hundreds of refugees from Congo sought refuge in their country's embassy over the past week.

Bofio Mopaya, 22, said he ran to the embassy after he was told a mob had broken into his home and killed his sister-in-law.

He arrived in Bangui in April, looking for work because the war in Congo had closed his school about 120 miles from the border. ``I don't know what I'm going to do once I'm back home,'' he said. ``People there don't have the means to get by either.''

The rapes and reprisals residents will likely poison relations between the neighboring countries for years, said Gbossokotto Maka, editor of Le Citoyen newspaper. ``People here are never going to forget the humiliation of the past week,'' Maka said.