European foreign minister agreed to deploy hundreds of soldiers to the Central African Republic on Monday, the same day the country named an interim president to lead it out of months of sectarian conflict.
The Christian mayor of the capital city Bengui, Catherine Samba-Panza, succeeds Michel Djotodia, a Muslim and former rebel leader who stepped down earlier this month under intense French and international pressure. She was elected by a transitional assembly and immediately called on Christian militias to lay down their arms.
France, the former colonial power, intervened in the Central African Republic in December after hundreds of Bengui’s residents had been killed by armed gangs in a matter of days.
The most recent violence erupted last year when Djotodia led Muslim rebels from the north of the country in a march on Bengui and seized power from the Christian president François Bozizé. Despite his later call to end the violence, tensions between the two religious groups only intensified, forcing up to one million civilians, a fifth of the population, to flee.
The French troops, numbering some 1,600, appeared at first to have restored some order in the capital but they are too thinly spread across a country nearly the size of France itself to keep the two factions apart.
The European Union force — which could be composed of soldiers from Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden — would number only five hundred, said France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius on Monday. The first troops should arrive next month, with either a United Nations Security Council mandate or following an invitation from the Central African Republic’s interim government, and stay for up to six months before handing over to an African Union force due to reach 6,000peacekeepers.