, BANGUI, Jun 20 – The Central African Republic’s government on Monday signed an “immediate ceasefire” deal with rebel groups at a meeting in Rome aimed at ending violence in the strife-torn country.
The accord, negotiated over five days, was hailed as a precious chance to stabilise one of the world’s most volatile and poorest countries.
Under it, armed groups will be given representation in the political arena in exchange for an end to attacks and blockades, and their members will be brought into the country’s armed forces.
“We commit to the immediate implementation by political-military groups of a country-wide ceasefire, to be monitored by the international community, as a fundamental step on the way to definitive peace,” the deal read.
“The government undertakes to ensure military groups are represented at all levels” and are “recognised as part of the reconstruction efforts”, it said.
The accord was brokered by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a group rooted in the Catholic Church that promotes dialogue with other religions and non-believers. It has been an active mediator in many African conflicts.
The rebel groups pledged to ensure “the free movement of people and goods by removing illegal barriers as an immediate consequence of the ceasefire”.
– State authority –
The signatories also committed to “restoring the (authority of the) state across the national territory.”
One of the world’s poorest nations, CAR has been struggling to recover from a civil war between Muslim and Christian militias that started in 2013 when President Francois Bozize was overthrown by a coalition of Muslim-majority rebel groups called the Seleka.
They in turn were ousted by a military intervention led by former colonial ruler France.
Those events sparked the bloodiest sectarian violence in the country’s history as mainly Christian militias sought revenge.
Christians, who account for about 80 percent of the population, organised vigilante units dubbed “anti-balaka”, in reference to the machetes used by the rebels.
The signatories of Monday’s agreement included various factions of the Seleka as well as Christian and animist groups.
Members of armed groups will be “integrated” into the country’s armed forces, “in line with pre-established criteria” and after an “upgrade,” according to the deal.
Sant’Egidio’s president Marco Impagliazzo described the accord as “an historic agreement, a deal full of hope”.
CAR’s foreign minister, Charles Armel Doubane, echoed those remarks, speaking of a “day of hope” for the country.
The UN’s special representative on CAR, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga of Gabon, who is also head of the UN’s stabilisation force there, attended the talks. Several heads of CAR political parties also took part.
– Mounting concern –
The agreement announced on Monday comes against a backdrop of mounting concern.
Last month, the UN’s humanitarian coordination agency OCHA reported on an “alarming” rise in violence, with “clashes (that) have taken an increasingly religious and ethnic connotation,.”
It said the number of internally displaced people is now over half a million for the first time since August 2014, while a further 400,000, out of a population of 4.5 million, had fled to neighbouring countries.
The country’s armed forces are estimated to number about 8,000, backed by 900 French troops and 10,000 troops and 2,000 civilians serving in a UN force called MINUSCA.
They have stabilised the situation, but around half the country — which covers almost 623,000 square kilometres (241,000 square miles), a little less than Afghanistan or Chile — remains outside government control.
“We must ensure that all the parties respect this agreement,” MINUSCA spokesman Vladimir Monteiro told AFP Monday.
“We will work with all the partners for the immediate cessation of hostilities so that the violence against the populations ceases,” he added.