BANGUI, Jan. 20 — Central African Republic lawmakers chose their capital's mayor, Catherine Samba-Panza, to become interim president on Monday and lead the country out of months of sectarian killings towards elections.
Samba-Panza called on mainly Muslim former rebels and the Christian militia battling them to lay down their weapons as people sang and danced on the streets of the riverside city, Bangui, in celebration.
The 59-year old succeeds Michel Djotodia, leader of a mostly Muslim rebel coalition, Seleka, that seized power in March. He stepped down this month under international pressure after failing to halt bloodshed that erupted after the revolt.
Waves of killing and looting by Seleka fighters triggered revenge attacks by Christian militia known as 'anti-balaka', fuelling unprecedented cycles of violence between communities that had previously lived side-by-side.
"I am the president of all Central Africans, without exception," said Samba-Panza, who had to show she had no link to either camp in the fighting to qualify for the post.
"I appeal to my anti-balaka and Seleka children to listen to me and together lay down your weapons," added the Chad-born who moved to Central African Republic when she was 18.
Central African Republic has seen little but sporadic rebellion and instability since independence from France in 1960.
But the scale of the latest crisis has been unparalleled. Nearly a quarter of the country's population has fled and a senior U.N. official warned last week the conflict could slip into genocide.
Samba-Panza defeated seven other candidates in Monday's contest, winning a second-round runoff by 75 votes to 53 for her closest rival Desire Kolingba, the son of former president Andre Kolingba.
Many of the estimated 500,000 displaced people in sprawling camps dotted around Bangui had been waiting for the outcome of the vote before deciding whether to return home.
A spokesman for a major group of anti-balaka fighters, which had earlier threatened protests against the vote, said they were happy with Samba-Panza's election.
"It was women who started the resistance to Djotodia. She is a woman who can bring peace," Sebastien Wenezoui told Reuters.
Samba-Panza became Africa's third female head of state in the post-colonial era, after Malawi's Joyce Banda and Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. A group of women sang outside the National Assembly chamber after her election.
The United Nations said the vote must mark a "new beginning" for the country and an end to "senseless violence".
French President Francois Hollande's office congratulated her and reiterated his country's support. But, underscoring the sense of urgency, the statement also urged Samba-Panza to immediately set about restoring order, reconciling the country and preparing elections.
France deployed 1,600 troops in December under a U.N. mandate to support a struggling African Union peacekeeping mission.
U.N. officials say that more than 2,000 people have been killed in clashes since March.
European Union foreign ministers agreed on Monday to send up to 1,000 soldiers to help stabilise the nation, a diplomatic source said, the bloc's first major army operation in six years.
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