BANGUI: Woman mayor becomes new Central African Republic president

BANGUI, Central African Republic – The mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza, was elected interim president of the Central African Republic, making her the first woman to hold the post, even as European Union agreed to send hundreds of troops to help restore peace to the country torn by sectarian bloodshed.

Samba-Panza, a businesswoman with a reputation as a fighter who became mayor of the capital in 2011, was elected in a second-round vote by the transitional parliament.

Cheers broke out in the assembly as the result was announced, with MPs singing the national anthem in celebration.

Samba-Panza succeeds Michel Djotodia, leader of the Seleka rebels who seized power in March. Djotodia stepped down on Jan. 10 under international pressure after he failed to halt inter-religious violence that has displaced more than 1 million people.

Samba-Panza was elected in a second-round runoff by 75 votes to 53 for her rival Desire Kolingba, the son of former president Andre Kolingba.

The landlocked former French colony descended in chaos in March after Seleka unleashed a wave of killing and looting, triggering revenge attacks by Christian militia known as 'anti-balaka' (anti-machete)..

Many now hope that the election of a new interim president with no links to either camp will help to bring calm to the nation of 4.6 million people.

In her victory speech, Samba-Panza urged Christian and Muslim militias to lay down their arms to put an end to months of sectarian bloodshed.

"Show your support for my nomination by giving the strong signal of laying down your weapons," Samba-Panza – who is Christian but did not campaign on a religious platform – told the Christian self-defence militia.

She issued a similar appeal to the members of mostly Muslim rebel group Seleka, telling them: "Stop the suffering of the people."

"Starting today, I am the president of all Central Africans, without exclusion," said Samba-Panza, 59.

"The top priority is to stop people's suffering, to restore security and the authority of the state across the country."

European Union foreign ministers meanwhile agreed to send hundreds of troops to the country in a rare joint military mission.

The mission, which will deploy in and around the capital and last up to six months, is expected to involve the rapid deployment of a force numbering anywhere between 400 and 1,000.

The troops will help back 1600 French soldiers and the African Union's MISCA force, which currently has 4400 troops on the ground.

International donors also pledged $US496 million ($A566.95 million) in aid to the country this year.

Samba-Panza's election comes 10 months after the Seleka rebels overthrew the country's government and installed their leader, Michel Djotodia, as the majority-Christian country's first Muslim president.

But Djotodia proved powerless to control his fighters, and many went on a rampage of killing, rape and looting targeting the Christian majority.

Some Christian communities responded by forming self-defence militias and attacking Muslims. Both sides are accused by rights watchdogs of major abuses.

The French president, Franois Hollande, has previously said Poland has offered a transport plane and the personnel to fly and maintain it.

The foreign ministers said in a joint statement: "Within its zone of operations [in and around Bangui], the military force will contribute to the regional and international efforts to protect the most endangered people and increase the civilians' freedom of movement."

They called for preparations that would allow rapid establishment of the force, subject to another authorising vote by EU states. After six months the EU detachment would hand off to African Union troops, the ministers said.

A team of UN investigators who spent nearly two weeks in the country last month reported a litany of gross human rights violations, including killings, kidnappings, torture and rape.

The violence has uprooted a million people out of a population of 4.6 million, and the United Nations estimates that 2.6 million need urgent humanitarian aid.

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