, BANGUI, Jan 20 – The Central African Republic’s transitional parliament was set Monday to pick a new interim leader tasked with restoring peace to the former French colony where thousands have died in Christian-Muslim violence.
The parliament announced Sunday that eight candidates are in the running, amid reports of a fresh outbreak of deadly sectarian violence in the country’s northwest.
The successful candidate will fill the void left when Michel Djotodia stepped aside last month under intense pressure from neighbouring countries over his failure to stem the bloodshed, which the United Nations has warned could turn into genocide.
International forces were deployed after the country plunged into sectarian warfare following a March coup in which the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel group overthrew president Francois Bozize and installed Djotodia in his place.
But with more than 600,000 square kilometres (231,000 square miles) to cover, they have been unable to restore order.
The International Committee for the Red Cross said late Sunday that at least 50 people had been killed in a fresh outbreak of violence in the northwest of the country.
“In the past 48 hours, teams from the ICRC and the CRCA (local branch of the Red Cross) have buried around 50 bodies,” the ICRC said in a statement.
Blaise Fleury Otto, head of a special electoral commission, said 24 dossiers had been whittled down to the eight candidates for interim president, according to draconian selection criteria.
These include the mayor of the capital Bangui, Catherine Samba Panza, as well as two sons of former presidents, Sylvain Patasse and Desire Kolingba.
Ange-Felix Patasse was president from 1993 to 2003, preceded by Andre Kolingba, who came to power in 1985 in the impoverished country with a long history of coups, attempted coups and army mutinies.
Excluded from standing for president are any political officials who worked for Djotodia, party leaders, active soldiers, and anyone who has belonged to a militia or rebel group in the last 20 years.
Although the Seleka were disbanded after installing Djotodia as president, some turned rogue and carried out a string of atrocities including killings, rape and pillage, prompting Christians to form vigilante groups in response.
Georgios Georgantas, head of the ICRC delegation, said a large proportion of the population had fled into the bush after being left without any protection against attack.
“We are extremely concerned for their safety,” he said.
The new interim leader will face an immense challenge in kick-starting a paralysed administration and bringing peace to the CAR before a general election which must be held in the first half of 2015.