BANGUI: Eight candidates are in the running for the interim presidency in the strife-torn Central African Republic, the transitional parliament announced Sunday.
Blaise Fleury Otto, head of a special electoral commission, said 24 dossiers had been whittled down to eight according to draconian selection criteria.
They include the mayor of the capital Bangui, Catherine Samba Panza, as well as two sons of former presidents, Sylvain Patasse and Desire Kolingba.
Ange-Felix Patasse was president from 1993 to 2003, preceded by Andre Kolingba, who came to power in 1985 in the impoverished country with a long history of coups, attempted coups and army mutinies.
Parliament will elect the interim leader on Monday to fill the void left when coup-maker Michel Djotodia stepped aside on January 11.
Excluded from standing for president are any political officials who worked for Djotodia, party leaders, active soldiers, and anyone who has belonged to a militia or rebel group in the last 20 years.
The new interim leader will be tasked with restoring peace to the former French colony, kick-starting a paralysed administration and enabling hundreds of thousands of displaced people to return home.
It is an especially tall order given that general elections must be held in the first half of 2015.
Djotodia had come under fire for failing to rein in his mainly Muslim Seleka rebels after they seized power in a coup last March, unleashing sectarian clashes in the predominantly Christian country, with the United Nations warning that the bloodshed could turn into genocide.
Although the Seleka were disbanded after installing Djotodia as president, some turned rogue and carried out a string of atrocities including killings, rape and pillage, prompting Christians to form vigilante groups in response.
The capital Bangui was quiet overnight but African and French troops were out in force in the streets fearing fresh unrest ahead of the parliamentary vote.
Clashes raged in several remote parts of the country on Saturday, and Save the Children said a grenade attack Friday on a truck convoy carrying Muslims fleeing to the northwest had killed 23 people, including three children.
"It is a sign of the still fraught and highly dangerous situation in the Central African Republic that children and their families have been attacked and killed while trying to evacuate to safety," said Robert Lankenau from the charity.
An officer with the MISCA African peacekeeping force told AFP "there is some violence nearly everywhere," pointing to Bouar in the west near the border with Cameroon, the town of Sibut north of Bangui, and Boali to the northwest of the capital.
"People are in a desperate situation, and as we get closer to the election it is going to get worse," the officer added, requesting anonymity.
Some 4,400 African troops and 1,600 French soldiers have been deployed to try to restore order in the impoverished country, but both missions have been calling for back-up.
Ahead of an EU meeting on Monday expected to approve the deployment of 500 European soldiers to help secure Bangui's airport, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Europe could not leave France alone in its bid to restore order in the country.
It is in Europe's interests to bring peace to the country, because "when instability, displacement and terrorism threaten Africa, the consequences will arrive in Europe," he told a German newspaper.
Despite the presence of peacekeepers, fighting has flared beyond Bangui.
In Boali, about 90 kilometres (55 miles) northwest of Bangui, the Red Cross said seven people have been killed since Friday.
Some 700 Muslims, mostly women and children, have taken refuge the past two nights at the Catholic parish church in the town, according to the abbot, Xavier Fagba.
Around 70 French troops are guarding the modest church with a corrugated steel roof, where sanitary conditions are already deteriorating.
Local priest Boris Wiligale said earlier that French forces had disarmed the Seleka rebels in the town but that Christian militias had seized the opportunity to come out of the bush.
Fagba said he was concerned over what would happen if the French troops left. "Now we need trucks to evacuate all these people, it's urgent," he said.
The Muslims cannot contemplate taking to the road without protection, as Christian vigilantes frequently set up impromptu roadblocks.
"Do something to get us out of here," an old man pleaded outside the church.