New leader raises hopes of end to bloodshed in Central Africa

The newly elected transitional President of the Central African Republic Catherine Samba-Panza gives a press conference on Jan 21, 2014 in Bangui. The Central African Republic's new leader pledged on Tuesday, Jan 21, 2014, to choose her Cabinet based
The newly elected transitional President of the Central African Republic Catherine Samba-Panza gives a press conference on Jan 21, 2014 in Bangui. The Central African Republic's new leader pledged on Tuesday, Jan 21, 2014, to choose her Cabinet based on skills rather than religion as she sought to end months of Christian-Muslim bloodshed. -- PHOTO: AFP

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AFP) - The Central African Republic's new leader pledged on Tuesday, Jan 21, 2014, to choose her Cabinet based on skills rather than religion as she sought to end months of Christian-Muslim bloodshed.

A day after Ms Catherine Samba-Panza, the mayor of the capital Bangui, was elected interim president by the transitional Parliament, residents said the city was unusually calm, apart from isolated acts of looting by gangs of youths.

But troops from an African Union-backed military mission found a dozen bodies in a grave just north of Bangui, a haunting reminder of the inter-religious killings that erupted after the mostly Muslim rebel group Seleka overthrew the government in March last year.

Since the crisis broke out, Red Cross workers have found bodies on an almost regular basis in and around Bangui, though the security situation has been improving since France launched a military deployment to its former colony a month and a half ago.

France has 1,600 troops on the ground backing the 4,400-strong African force MISCA. The European Union agreed on Monday to send another 500 troops to help.

On Monday soldiers from neighbouring Cameroon killed three Central African fighters - two Seleka men and an anti-balaka Christian militiaman - when a firefight spilled across the border, said Cameroon's defence minister.

Looking to restore a functioning state and heal religious hatred, Ms Samba-Panza said she wanted a government of technocrats free of corruption, telling a French radio station she would appoint people regardless of religious affiliation.

"I have no animosity, I am looking for skills, a government of technocrats, with strong moral probity. If I have a prime minister who meets these criteria and is of the Muslim religion, I don't see why I shouldn't appoint him," she told Radio France Internationale (RFI).

The public and politicians alike hailed the choice of the first woman to lead the Central African Republic after 10 months of spiralling violence between Muslim former rebels and Christian vigilantes, which has displaced a million people in the country of 4.6 million.

Residents welcomed the "resounding appeal" by "Madame Catherine" for both the Christian self-defence militias known as "anti-balaka" (anti-machete) and the Muslim fighters to lay down their arms.

A representative of the anti-balaka forces Levi Yakete told AFP he had "passed on the ceasefire appeal to our fighters and it is being heeded".

MS Samba-Panza replaces rebel leader Michel Djotodia, who proved incapable of reining in his fighters when they went on a rampage of killing, raping and looting after he took power. He was forced to resign under international pressure on Jan 10.

The UN World Food Programme warned it was running out of supplies for a growing number of homeless people, including about 100,000 Bangui residents who have fled to a sprawling tent city near the airport where foreign troops are based.

"Me, I'm not budging," Ms Nathalie Kossimou told AFP at the airport camp. "I have nothing, my house was looted, I'm scared, and as long as the Seleka still have weapons, I'll be staying here."

Truck driver Jean-Firmin Passire welcomed Ms Samba-Panza as a "conciliatory" figure.

"This is a lady, she will make an effort," he said. "Since independence, we have known nothing but men and they all behaved like bandits."

After decades of corruption since independence from France in 1960, international donors are eager for a credible leader to deal with. On Monday they pledged US$496 million (S$634 million) in aid for this year.

The United Nations has warned of a potential for "genocide" in the country, where religious communities had previously lived together in peace.

MS Samba-Panza, who has yet to be sworn in before the provisional Constitutional Court, is tasked with organising general elections by February 2015, in which she will be barred from standing.

She told RFI that an interim prime minister "will be named within two or three days".

Despite pressure from France to hold polls this year, Ms Samba-Panza said February 2015 would be "manageable" and warned against rushing into elections.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius indicated Ms Samba-Panza would be inaugurated on Thursday, and praised her as a "remarkable woman".

"Her task is immense but she must know she can count on France's support," he told the French Parliament.

The Central African Republic's minister for communication and reconciliation Adrien Poussou, said Ms Samba-Panza "knows the Central African political class well".

"The fact that she doesn't have a political label will dissuade those who would be tempted to keep up the violence," he said on a visit to Rome.

But she has her work cut out for her, he added.