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Central African Republic reaches peace deal with armed groups

FLORENT VERGNES/AFP | A man shows shell casings of bullets fired by the UN peacekeeping force MINUSCA and Central African troops, in PK5 district, in Bangui, on April 9, 2018.

A peace deal has been reached between the Central African Republic government and 14 armed groups in their first-ever direct dialogue, potentially ending years of conflict in the country, the United Nations and African Union announced Saturday.

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The impoverished, landlocked nation has been rocked by violence since 2013 when mainly Muslim Selaka rebels ousted then president Francois Bozizé, prompting reprisals from mostly Christian militias and interreligious, intercommunal fighting.

UN peacekeepers were deployed in 2014. Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in a conflict that has sent two people to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The deal, the seventh since 2012, was announced on Twitter by the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadera just a day after African Union (AU) and UN-sponsored talks in Khartoum were suspended amid disagreements over amnesty.

"A peace agreement has been reached," said the tweet. "This agreement should be initialled tomorrow (Sunday) and its signing will take place in Bangui in a few days".

"I am determined to work with the president and his government to address the concerns of our brothers who took up arms," said Central African Republic's Cabinet Director Firmin Ngrebada, according to the UN.

High risk of genocide, UN warns

On Sunday, the parties will sign a draft of the agreement, which focuses on power-sharing and transitional justice, Sudan's state media reported, citing Sudan's chief negotiator Atta al-Manan. The final deal is expected to be signed on Wednesday. Talks began January 24 in Khartoum.

"This is a great day for Central African Republic and all its people," said the AU commissioner for peace and security, Smail Chergui.

The fighting has carried the high risk of genocide, the UN has warned. The conflict began in 2013 when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the capital, Bangui. Largely Christian anti-Balaka militias fought back. Scores of mosques were burned. Priests and other religious leaders were killed. Many Muslims fled the country after mobs decapitated and dismembered some in the streets.

The conflict has also uprooted more than one million people, the UN said, and had until now shown little sign of abating.

The vicious fighting in a country known more for coups than interreligious violence was so alarming that Pope Francis made a bold visit in 2015, removing his shoes and bowing his head at the Central Mosque in the last remaining Muslim neighbourhood of the capital, Bangui.

"Together we say 'no' to hatred," the pope said.

Gold, diamonds and uranium

The violence has never disappeared, intensifying and spreading last year after a period of relative peace as armed groups battled over lands rich in gold, diamonds and uranium.

After more than 40 people were killed in a rebel attack on a displaced persons camp in November, both the leader of the 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission and the country's prime minister both acknowledged shortcomings in the response. "I knew that we did not have all the necessary means to protect our people," the prime minister said.

In a grim report last year marking five years of the conflict, the UN children's agency said fighters often target civilians rather than each other, attacking health facilities and schools, mosques and churches and camps for displaced people.

At least half of the more than 640,000 people displaced are children, it said, and thousands are thought to have joined the armed groups, often under pressure.

Last month the chief of Central African Republic's soccer federation appeared at the ICC for the first time since he was arrested last year in France on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona is accused of leading the anti-Balaka for at least a year early in the fighting.

In November 2018 another Central African Republic militia leader and lawmaker, Alfred Yekatom, made his first ICC appearance, accused of crimes including murder, torture and using child soldiers. He allegedly commanded some 3,000 fighters in a predominantly Christian militia in and around the capital early in the fighting. He was arrested last year after firing gunshots in parliament.

So far no Seleka fighters have been publicly targeted by the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.

As the peace talks began last month, the Norwegian Refugee Council warned of "catastrophe" if no agreement was reached, saying repeated cycles of violence in one of the world's poorest nations had "pushed people’s resistance to breaking point."

A majority of Central African Republic's 2.9 million people urgently need humanitarian support, the group said.

On Thursday, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to extend an arms embargo on Central African Republic for a year but raised the possibility that it could be lifted.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS & AFP)

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