, N’Djamena January 9 – African leaders began talks on Thursday in Chad’s capital Ndjamena to tackle the sectarian violence wracking the Central African Republic, with the pressure piling on embattled president Michel Djotodia.
The special summit of the 10 nation Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) was convened by Chad’s President Idriss Deby, who chairs the regional organisation.
Djotodia and his Prime Minister Nicolas Tiengaye arrived late on Wednesday for the summit.
ECCAS has insisted “regime change” is not the goal of the meeting, called officially to address the government’s failure to stem the deadly violence that has wracked the country for months.
But Allami Ahmat, ECCAS’ secretary general, said ahead of the summit the country was in a “deplorable situation,” under “transitional authorities who have proven themselves incapable, powerless even, to solve the problem.”
France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said African leaders would be taking “decisions” on the future of Djotodia, a former rebel leader swept to power in a March coup that unleashed the current unrest.
“There are certainly decisions to be made, with regard to the political transition and the fact the state is paralysed. We shall see what our African friends decide,” Fabius told France 2 television on Thursday.
“It is not France’s place to dictate decisions. We are here to offer support,” added Fabius, whose country last month deployed 1,600 troops alongside an African peacekeeping force in its former colony.
The regional powerbroker and current ECCAS chair, Chadian President Itno called the summit, officially to ensure the situation in CAR does not spiral out of control.
“It’s not about regime change, nor changing the transition. It’s about taking measures to restore peace and security in Central Africa,” said ECCAS’ Ahmat.
In Bangui, the Central African communications minister slapped down any talk of Djotodia’s departure, saying it would only worsen the crisis.
Delegations were to continue arriving in NDjamena throughout Thursday, with talks expected to take place through the night to Friday, Chadian sources said.
The CAR sank into chaos when rebels from the Seleka movement launched their coup in March, installing Djotodia as the first Muslim president in the overwhelmingly Christian country.
Djotodia has since officially disbanded the rebels, but has proven unable to keep them in check.
Instead the rebels went on killing, raping and pillaging, prompting Christians to form vigilante groups in response and sparking a deadly cycle of revenge attacks.
More than 1,000 people have been killed in the past month alone and nearly a million have been displaced since the coup.
‘Infiltrations by armed elements’
There are fears the unrest is spreading through the region with a UN official warning that both Seleka rebels and former CAR soldiers have crossed into volatile Democratic Republic of Congo, where they are sending people fleeing.
Abdallah Wafi, the UN’s deputy special envoy to DR Congo said: “There are infiltrations by armed elements” and by former CAR soldiers.
Many former CAR soldiers fled their home country when the Seleka rebels launched their coup. The rebels in turn were pushed out when French and African peacekeepers arrived in the CAR in December.
Although mass slaughters have mostly ceased amid frequent patrols by the peacekeepers, sporadic killings carry on almost every night.
A humanitarian disaster is also looming with 100,000 people who fled their homes crammed into a tent city near Bangui airport, close to the peacekeepers’ bases.
While the international military operation in the CAR has somewhat halted the slide into deeper conflict, there is no sustainable political solution in sight.
Congolese President and African mediator in the crisis Denis Sassou Nguesso and Chad’s president now want to “reshuffle the cards because it doesn’t work and a plan B is required,” a Western diplomat said.
Under pressure by the international community, Djotodia has pledged not to stand for presidential elections expected by the end of 2014 or early 2015.
Current political agreements in place ban all those in power during the transition from standing in future elections.
That in turn has stalled bids for a national unity transitional government as all the leaders of political parties have refused to participate in the process.
Amid the deadlock, EU nations are considering whether to join in the French and African operations in the CAR, with a meeting on the issue scheduled Friday.
Aid agencies are also battling to contain a humanitarian crisis in the landlocked country.
On Wednesday, UNICEF said it was racing to vaccinate 210,000 children displaced by violence in Bangui, after at least seven cases of measles a potentially deadly disease were confirmed.
Souleymane Diabate, UNICEF Representative in CAR said: “This is a deadly combination for children. Unless we act now, we could have a disaster on our hands.”