Central African Republic names capital city mayor as interim president

Catherine Samba-Panza was selected after two rounds of balloting. The mayor of Bangui becomes the first woman president in the history of the African nation.

Siegfried Modola/REUTERS
Catherine Samba-Panza reacts after she was elected as Central African Republic's interim president at the national assembly in Bangui January 20, 2014.

Members of a national transitional council chose the female mayor of Central African Republic's capital to lead the country out of chaos Monday, as a top United Nations official urged the international community to keep the nation from "crossing the tipping-point into an all-out sectarian conflict."

At two meetings in Brussels, international donors pledged a total of $496 million in humanitarian assistance and European Union foreign ministers took a first step toward potentially deploying hundreds more troops to reinforce French and African peacekeepers to secure the lawless and violent country where nearly one million people are displaced.

Bangui Mayor Catherine Samba-Panza was chosen as interim president after two rounds of voting, becoming the first female leader in the country's history. She beat out Desire Zanga-Kolingba, the son of a former president in Monday's runoff. Samba-Panza, dressed in a bright pink suit jacket, thrust her arms into the air in victory.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius described the 59-year-old Samba-Panza as a "very remarkable woman."

Samba-Panza, a longtime corporate lawyer in the insurance industry who took over the mayor's office last June, now will be tasked with organizing national elections before the end of 2014, a job critics say may be nearly impossible given the amount of looting and destruction to administrative buildings throughout the country. She also faces the enormous task of stemming anarchy and bloodshed that has left an untold number dead since a March 2013 coup. An armed Christian movement known as the anti-Balaka arose in opposition to the mostly Muslim Seleka rebellion that seized power then.

"I call on my children, especially the anti-Balaka, to put down their arms and stop all the fighting. The same goes for the ex-Seleka — they should not have fear. I don't want to hear any more talk of murders and killings," she said.

She urged the 100,000 people sheltering near the airport — nicknamed with bitter irony the "Ledger" after the town's sole five-star luxury hotel — to return home.

"I'm also calling on the international community to help us quickly restore order in our country which today is on the brink of chaos," she said.

Under mounting international pressure, rebel leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia stepped aside 10 days ago after it became clear he lacked control over the fighters who brought him to power and who were later implicated in scores of atrocities against the predominantly Christian civilian population. Djotodia was the country's first Muslim leader, and an armed Christian militia movement launched an attempted coup in early December.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed Samba-Panza's election, saying the change of leadership "offers a critical opportunity to put the transition process back on track," according to a statement released by his spokesperson's office. It added that Ban "remains extremely concerned about the ongoing sectarian violence in the Central African Republic and the worsening humanitarian crisis that affects more than half of the population."

While many hope a change in leadership will bring peace, violence has continued unabated since Djotodia's departure.

On Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its local partners reported burying 50 more bodies in the country's northwest over the weekend. Lynch mobs continue to roam the streets of Bangui.

"This election must mark a new beginning as the country moves towards the full restoration of democratic legitimacy," said a statement from the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Central African Republic.

Some 1,600 French peacekeepers along with 4,400 African troops are working to restore order though nearly all of them are in Bangui while violence has ravaged the distant northwest.

On Monday, the European Union took initial steps in Brussels toward sending as many as 600 troops to Bangui to aid the effort, diplomats said. It was unclear where the troops would come from and when they would deploy.

In addition to the EU aid offer, the United States also announced that it would be providing nearly $30 million in more humanitarian assistance, bringing the total to $45 million since major violence erupted last month.

At a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for "swift and concrete action to defuse the spiraling inter-communal anger and resentment that is becoming dangerously entrenched."

While the presence of French peacekeepers has prevented large-scale reprisal attacks, Pillay said the disarmament effort has left many Muslim civilians vulnerable to violence from the Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka.

"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," she said.

Tens of thousands of migrants from neighboring African countries — mostly Muslims — have fled Central African Republic in the last month, some to home countries where they barely speak the language and have few remaining relatives.

Cameroon's defense minister said Monday its army killed three fighters from Central African Republic after rockets landed in the border town of Garoua-Boulai. There were not casualties, Edgar Alain Mebe Ngo'o said.

He said they were apparently fired during fighting between former members of the Seleka and anti-Balaka fighters.

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