BANGUI: The mayor of Bangui, Catherine Samba-Panza, was elected interim president of the Central African Republic Monday, as the EU agreed to send hundreds of troops to help restore peace to the country torn by sectarian bloodshed.
Samba-Panza, a businesswoman with a reputation as a fighter who became mayor of the capital in 2011, was elected in a second-round vote by the transitional parliament, becoming the chronically unstable country’s first woman leader.
Cheers broke out in the assembly as the result was announced, with lawmakers singing the national anthem in celebration.
In her victory speech, Samba-Panza – who won 75 votes against 53 for Desire Kolingba, the son of a former president – urged Christian and Muslim militias to lay down their arms to put an end to months of sectarian bloodshed.
“Show your support for my nomination by giving the strong signal of laying down your weapons,” Samba-Panza – who is Christian but did not campaign on a religious platform – told the Christian self-defense militia known as “anti-balaka” (anti-machete).
She issued a similar appeal to the members of mostly Muslim rebel group Seleka, telling them: “Stop the suffering of the people.”
“Starting today, I am the president of all Central Africans, without exclusion,” said Samba-Panza, 59.
“The top priority is to stop people’s suffering, to restore security and the authority of the state across the country.”
European Union foreign ministers meanwhile agreed to send hundreds of troops to the country in a rare joint military mission.
The mission, which will deploy in and around the capital and last up to six months, is expected to involve the rapid deployment of a force numbering between 400 and 1,000.
The troops will help back 1,600 French soldiers and the African Union’s MISCA force, which has 4,400 troops on the ground.
International donors also pledged $496 million (365 million euros) in aid to the country this year.
“We face a political and humanitarian emergency in the Central African Republic,” said Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. “We clearly need to do something.”
Samba-Panza’s election comes 10 months after the Seleka rebels overthrew the country’s government and installed their leader, Michel Djotodia, as the majority-Christian country’s first Muslim president.
But Djotodia was unable to control his fighters, and many went on a rampage of killing, rape and looting targeting the Christian majority.
Some Christian communities responded by forming self-defense militias and attacking Muslims. Both sides are accused by rights watchdogs of major abuses, and the United Nations has warned of a potential inter-religious genocide.
Djotodia stood down under international pressure on Jan. 10.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday the Central African Republic is “caught in a crisis of epic proportions.”
“The CAR is in free-fall ... We must act together, and act now, to pull CAR back from the brink of further atrocities,” Ban said in a statement read by the acting head of the U.N. mission in Geneva, Michael Moeller, at a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
A team of U.N. investigators who spent nearly two weeks in the country last month reported a litany of human rights violations, including, abductions, killings, torture and rape.
“The mission received consistent, credible testimony and photographs supporting allegations that anti-balaka mutilated Muslim men, women and children, before or after they were killed,” said U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay.
The violence has uprooted a million people out of a population of 4.6 million, and the United Nations estimates that 2.6 million need urgent humanitarian aid.
Relief workers said they had found at least 73 more bodies of people killed in the north since Friday.
Christians and Muslims had previously lived in relative peace in the impoverished country. But it has had a long chain of coups and rebellions since independence in 1960.
France, the country’s former colonial ruler, welcomed Samba-Panza’s election and urged her to hold speedy national polls. As interim leader she is tasked with organizing general elections by mid-2015, though France is pressing for them to be held this year.
“It now falls to her to assure the needed peace and reconciliation in CAR, with a view to holding democratic elections,” said French President Francois Hollande.
With fighters still at large in Bangui, local residents interviewed on election day repeatedly pleaded for a return to normal life and restored security in the country, whose natural resources have been under-exploited because of instability.
“It won’t be easy” for the new head of state, interim parliament leader Lea Kouyassoum Doumta warned before the poll, urging her colleagues to “spare a thought” for hundreds of thousands of displaced people and those “abandoned” in the provinces.