N’DJAMENA/BANGUI: Central African Republic’s interim President Michel Djotodia caved in to international pressure and resigned Friday after failing to halt interreligious violence, drawing thousands onto the streets in celebration.
The resignations of Djotodia and his Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye were announced in a statement issued at a two-day summit of the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC) in neighboring Chad.
Thousands of people have been killed and 1 million displaced by cycles of violence since abuses by Djotodia’s mainly Muslim rebels, known as Seleka, prompted the creation of Christian self-defense militia after he seized power in March.
With memories of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide stirred by the unrest, France sent hundreds of troops to its former colony last month to support African peacekeepers trying to keep the peace. But the killings have continued, and France repeatedly voiced its frustration with Djotodia’s government.
Djotodia and Tiangaye resigned after Central African Republic’s transitional assembly was summoned to the Chad summit late Thursday to decide on the country’s future.
All 135 lawmakers were flown in at the behest of Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno to try to resolve the crisis as it threatened to spill over into neighboring countries.
Under an agreement brokered by the CEEAC last year, the CNT elected Djotodia to his position as interim president in April to take Central African Republic to elections, due at the end of this year.
Candidates to replace Djotodia have yet to emerge, but the interim Parliament is due to hold a special session Monday to choose his successor.
“We take note of the resignation. It is up to the CNT to decide what happens now,” said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal. “France does not interfere in any case with this process.”
The regional leaders had run out of patience with Djotodia. Sources told Reuters Wednesday he would be forced to resign at the summit, although Djotodia’s office had insisted he would remain in power.
As news from the summit reached the capital, thousands of residents took to the streets, dancing, singing and honking horns in celebration. Cheers erupted at a camp for 100,000 displaced Christian civilians at the French-controlled airport.
“It’s a new day for Central African Republic. God has heard our crying and our prayers,” said Jeanne, a 71-year-old woman in Bangui, outside a shop where she said her son was killed by Seleka in March.
As evening approached, many people returned home, fearing overnight reprisals by former rebels who were still in town.
Residents in several neighborhoods reported Seleka gunmen firing into the air in order to clear their path to leave.
France strengthened its military presence on the streets Friday.
French military armored vehicles were deployed near the presidential palace while peacekeepers were patrolling in the capital.
France has 1,600 troops in the country, operating under a U.N. mandate to assist an African force that is due to be bolstered to 6,000 men.
European Union officials proposed this week sending EU troops to support them.
A humanitarian disaster is also looming with almost a million people having fled their homes in a nation of about 4.6 million people.
Some 100,000 of them have set up camp in one tent city alone near Bangui airport, close to the peacekeepers’ bases.
UNICEF has warned of a potential disaster in overcrowded camps in and around the capital, where there have been several cases of measles, which could be deadly. Relief agencies have joined in a vaccination campaign.
Regional leaders are anxious to stem the crisis as there are fears 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.
Many troops fled their home country when the Seleka rebels launched their coup.
The rebels in turn were pushed out when French and African peacekeepers arrived in the country in December.
“Central African Republic is de facto under the tutelage of the rest of the region,” said Thierry Vircoulon, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “The problem is that so far the rest of the region has not been able to manage the transition very well.”