Central Africa President offers talks as sectarian violence mounts

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AFP) - The Central African Republic's President offered on Saturday, Dec 14, 2013, to hold talks with Christian militia groups in efforts to end spiralling sectarian violence that has killed hundreds of people in a week.

Mr Michel Djotodia, who became the majority Christian country's first Muslim leader in a March coup, told Radio France Internationale that he was ready to "extend his hand" and "talk" to militia groups.

The talks would address issues including an amnesty for the groups' role in the unrest and giving them posts in his transitional government.

"They are not enemies. They are our brothers," Mr Djotodia said.

Violence between Christians and Muslims has been on the rise since the coup, but the latest carnage has seen several hundred people killed over the past week, prompting United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon and local authorities to plead for an end to the atrocities.

UN refugee agency UNHCR said more than 600 people were killed, including 450 in the capital, Bangui, and 160 in other parts of the country.

The number of dead and wounded across the country was not known, but the UN's human rights office said 27 Muslims had been killed by militia in one village.

In Bangui a mob hacked a Muslim motorcyclist to death near the airport on Saturday morning, witnesses told Agence France-Presse. Moments later residents brandished the man's cut-off hands, an AFP journalist saw.

Another man was wounded in the violence and sought refuge at a nearby French military base.

Muslim and Christian leaders have called for calm and launched joint operations, distributing food and holding inter-religious services.

But a young Muslim told AFP on condition of anonymity that Christian faithful at the Notre-Dame-de-Fatima church had refused entry to Muslim leaders invited by their own priests.

The leader of the Islamic Committee of the Central African Republic, Imam Oumar Kobin Layama, speaking at a mosque near where the Muslim motorcyclist was lynched, condemned the murder.

"Innocent Muslims are paying the price," he said.

"We are calling for calm. The country must not go up in flames. We must not give back as we were given." UN chief Ban urged religious and community leaders to act as messengers of peace to heal divisions in communities that had long lived together in peace.

"Do not allow the voices of hatred to sow division where none existed before," he said in a radio message late Friday.

"Whatever your faith or background, you share the same history and the same future," he said. "The bloodshed must stop," he added, warning that those committing atrocities would be "held to account".

Mr Ban said the UN would continue to help an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also warned of rising violence as he met some of the 1,600 French troops deployed in Bangui on Friday.

"The spiral of confrontation has abruptly worsened," Mr Le Drian said, also warning of "the early beginnings of a humanitarian crisis".

Mr Le Drian denied accusations by the Muslim community that France favoured CAR's Christians, insisting that French troops "will be impartial to the end" and were "very conscious of the importance of their mission".

The World Food Programme meanwhile said on Saturday it had stopped the distribution of food at a camp of 45,000 displaced people close to Bangui airport after it turned violent with the plundering of rations of rice, oil and beans.

A week after France sent troops into its former colony to bolster an African peacekeeping force, bands of armed thugs continue to roam the streets, and heavy bursts of gunfire still ring out intermittently.

French paratroopers left for neighbouring Cameroon on Saturday to further bolster forces in the Central African Republic if needed, their regiment said.

Chronically unstable CAR was plunged into chaos after a March coup by mostly Muslim rebels ousted president Francois Bozize.

Some members of the Seleka rebel group went rogue, spreading terror which government forces could not stop.

Months of massacres, rapes and looting followed, with locals forming Christian vigilante groups in response.

UNHCR said the violence had forced nearly 160,000 residents of Bangui from their homes in the past week. They were spread over some 40 sites, including in camps, churches and mosques.