Bangui – The resignation of the Central African Republic’s rebel leader-turned-president raised hopes today of an end to sectarian strife that has pushed the nation to the brink of collapse. Under intense diplomatic pressure, Michel Djotodia stepped down yesterday during a special regional summit in Chad, which called his move a “highly patriotic decision”. Djotodia had come under fire for failing to rein in the mainly Muslim rebels who brought him to power in March 2013 and whose abuses triggered retaliatory violence by Christian militias. Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye, whose notoriously bad relations with Djotodia had crippled the state’s ability to take any decisive action against armed gangs, also quit. In Bangui, news of the double resignation was greeted with joy, and thousands of people took to the streets, shouting “it’s over, it’s over”. Ten months of violence have displaced a fifth of the country’s population and the sectarian flare-up has killed more than 1 000 people in the past month alone, despite former colonial power France’s military intervention. “This guy [Djotodia] drove the country into the ground, he is a demon,” said Tertus Ngoupou, seeking refuge at a huge camp near the airport alongside tens of thousands of Christians fleeing inter-religious clashes. “If God wills it, from tonight Christians and Muslims will live in harmony and I will be back in my home by Sunday.” Djotodia, whose Seleka rebellion descended on Bangui from the Chadian border in late 2012, became the Christian majority nation’s first Muslim president last year. He struggled, like many of his predecessors, to extend any real influence beyond the capital, but Bangui’s Muslims fear his resignation may egg on vengeful Christians. “There are whispers, rumours. I’ve heard we are going to be attacked when Djotodia steps down,” a young Muslim salesman who gave his name as Osmane said. In a sign of ongoing tension in the capital, sporadic shooting rang out in the afternoon and there were a few incidents of looting, a French military source said. “We are in a state of maximum alert,” he said. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said it would today begin to airlift out some of the 33 000 people from other African nations who need “urgent” help in the Central African Republic. An IOM statement said the first three flights will take about 800 Chadians home from Bangui. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the African Union to speedily provide promised troops to help curb the “terrible crisis” in the CAR. France has deployed 1 600 troops in the country to support the African Union force, which is meant to have up to 6 000 troops, but has not yet reached 3 500. European nations yesterday agreed in principle on a plan to launch a joint military operation in the country, with a final decision expected on January 20, an EU source said. Candidates to replace Djotodia have yet to emerge, but the interim parliament is due to hold a special session on Monday. Chad is seen as having more than tacitly backed Djotodia’s coup, but, true to its reputation as the kingmaker of Bangui politics, it moved to sideline him when he failed to deliver. All 135 Central African lawmakers were flown to the summit of the regional Economic Community of Central African States grouping on Thursday at the behest of Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno. With much of the landlocked country’s population in need of food aid, a major humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Bangui’s overcrowded camps and in the vast hinterland. Regional leaders are anxious to stem the crisis as there are fears that the unrest is extending beyond the mineral-rich Central African Republic. The UN has warned that both former Seleka rebels and former CAR soldiers have crossed into the volatile Democratic Republic of Congo, causing local residents to flee. The CAR, which has few stable neighbours, shares an eastern border with South Sudan, where nationwide fighting has been raging for three weeks. France warned before sending troops last month that the CAR – which has been plagued by coups and civil unrest since independence in 1960 – risked becoming a Somalia-style “failed state”.