Interim president Catherine Samba-Panza urged fighters to put down their arms as she took the oath of office, even as looters pillaged Muslim neighbourhoods and sectarian tensions escalated in the Central African Republic.
Samba-Panza, the nation’s first female leader, was sworn in at a ceremony on Thursday days after being chosen by a national transitional council. The rebel leader behind the March 2013 coup stepped aside nearly two weeks ago under mounting international criticism of his inability to control his fighters and stem the violence.
If these people are not evacuated within the next hour, they will be dead tomorrow. As soon as we leave they will be killed.
In her inaugural address, Samba-Panza urged both the Muslim fighters behind the coup and Christian armed opposition to support peace.
“I strongly call on the fighters to show patriotism in putting down their weapons,” she said. “The ongoing disorder in the country will no longer be tolerated.”
The Central African Republic has been wracked by sectarian violence for months, with more than 1,000 people killed in Bangui over the course of several days in December alone. Nearly one million people have fled their homes, with 100,000 of them living in and around the Bangui airport being guarded by French soldiers.
UN officials have warned that the crisis has a high risk of escalating into genocide, driven by fighting between Christians and Muslims.
Hundreds of Christians went on a rampage on Wednesday, looting and setting fire to Muslim-owned homes and businesses and threatening to go on a killing spree.
Rwandan and French forces intervened late on Wednesday to rescue about 30 Muslims trapped inside their homes by marauding gangs in the PK13 district of Bangui, witnesses said. The help arrived after international human rights activists pleaded for help for the families.
“If these people are not evacuated within the next hour, they will be dead tomorrow. As soon as we leave they will be killed,” said Peter Bouckaert, the emergency director at Human Rights Watch.
As night fell, French forces provided a truck to take the family and their few belongings to a nearby refugee camp of Muslims under international protection.
The coup leader, Michel Djotodia, and his mostly Muslim fighters were blamed for scores of atrocities against the predominantly Christian population in his 10 months in power. A Christian militia launched a counter-coup last month.
African countries have contributed about 4,600 soldiers to the Central African Republic, and France has sent 1,600. Among the countries helping is Rwanda, which suffered a genocide in 1994 that left more than 500,000 people dead.