CAR Parly votes for new president

2014-01-20 14:21
A French soldier speaks to suspected Christian militia member wounded by machete blows in the Kokoro neighbourhood of Bangui, Central African Republic. (Jerome Delay, AP)

A French soldier speaks to suspected Christian militia member wounded by machete blows in the Kokoro neighbourhood of Bangui, Central African Republic. (Jerome Delay, AP)

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Bangui - The Central African parliament began voting on Monday to elect a new interim president tasked with restoring peace to a country in chaos, where thousands have died in Christian-Muslim violence.

At least 129 members of the National Transitional Council (CNT), which serves as an acting parliament with 135 members in all, were taking part in the vote aimed at replacing Michel Djotodia, who was forced to stand down on 10 January.

"It won't be easy" for the new leader, Kouyassoum Doumta said, urging her colleagues to "spare a thought" for "abandoned" civilians in the provinces and for hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

"The people are watching us. We are going to make an important choice for the future of our country," she stressed, after relief workers announced finding at 70 more bodies of people killed in the north since Friday.

Each presidential candidate was given 10 minutes to make a "statement of intent" to the CNT members, who were then set to choose a new transitional leader by secret ballot in a single round.

The parliamentary body decided that in order to be elected, a candidate must win the absolute majority in that round. Failing this, a second round will pit the two front-runners against each other.

The CAR collapsed after mainly Muslim rebels put Djotodia in power last March in a coup. He proved powerless to control fighters of his Seleka coalition and many went on a rampage of killing, rape and looting against people from the Christian majority.

Some Christian communities responded by forming "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) self-defence militias and attacking Muslims. Both sides are accused by rights watchdogs of major abuses and the United Nations has warned of a potential inter-religious "genocide".

'A crisis of epic proportions'

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday said that the CAR is "caught in a crisis of epic proportions", which has driven almost a million members of the population of 4.6 million from their homes and left 2.6 million in need of humanitarian aid.

"The CAR is in free-fall... We must act together, and act now, to pull CAR back from the brink of further atrocities," Ban said in a statement read by the acting head of the UN mission in Geneva, Michael Moeller, at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council.

In the capital Bangui, patrolled by troops from French and African contingents based at the airport, Monday's election was the main topic of conversation in the morning. It also dominated talk in the sprawling tent city near the airport where about 100 000 Christian Bangui residents have taken refuge.

During the day, the European Union was expected to approve the despatch of 400-600 European soldiers to Bangui. They will back the 1 600 French troops of Operation Sangaris, who have worked since December 5 under a UN mandate, and the 4 400 men of the African Union's MISCA peacekeeping force.

While gunmen were still at large in the capital, local residents repeatedly pleaded for a return to normal life and a new leader who could "restore security" in the poor, landlocked nation, whose natural resources have never been exploited because of instability.

The candidates include Bangui's mayor, Catherine Samba Panza, as well as Sylvain Patasse and Desire Kolingba, respectively the sons of ex-presidents Ange-Felix Patasse, in power from 1993 to 2003, and Andre Kolingba, his predecessor (1981-1993).

Another locally familiar name is that of Emile Gros Raymond Nakombo, a banker close to Kolingba, who in 2011 ran for the presidency against the incumbent Francois Bozize, who took power in a 2003 coup and was toppled in the Seleka coup.

Credible testimony

A month and a half after the start of French intervention in its former colony, security in Bangui has gradually improved, but sporadic outbreaks of brutal violence still spread fear.

To deploy foreign troops in the interior of the country of more than 600 000 square kilometres is a challenge and residents of isolated regions speak of a chaotic situation.

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 mission received consistent, credible testimony and photographs supporting allegations that anti-balaka mutilated Muslim men, women and children, before or after they were killed...," UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said Monday.

Since Friday, the Red Cross has reported finding 50 bodies in the northwest, while Save the Children said at least 23 Muslim civilians, including three children, were massacred near Bouar as they tried to flee to Cameroon.

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