President's resignation raises hope of end to sectarian strife in Central African Republic

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AFP) - The resignation of the Central African Republic's rebel leader-turned-president raised hopes on Saturday of an end to sectarian strife that has pushed the nation to the brink of collapse.

Under intense diplomatic pressure, Mr Michel Djotodia stepped down on Friday during a special regional summit in Chad, which called his move a "highly patriotic decision".

Mr 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 Mr 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, with thousands of people descending on 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 Mr 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."

Mr 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 told AFP.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said it would begin on Saturday to airlift 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 MISCA force, which is meant to have up to 6,000 troops but has not yet reached 3,500.

European nations on Friday 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 Mr Djotodia have yet to emerge, but the interim parliament is due to hold a special session on Monday.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged lawmakers to decide "as soon as possible".

Chad is seen as having more than tacitly backed Mr 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 ECCAS 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 United Nations has warned that both ex-Seleka rebels and CAR former 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".

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