BANGUI – The mayor of the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, was chosen as interim president Monday, becoming the first woman to lead the violence-wracked country, as the European Union agreed to send hundreds of troops to help stem the bloodshed.
Catherine Samba-Panza, a businesswoman with a reputation as a fighter who became Bangui mayor last year, was elected in a second-round vote by the transitional parliament. She now faces the enormous task of restoring peace to the chronically unstable country.
Cheers broke out in the assembly as the result was announced, with lawmakers singing the national anthem in celebration.
In her victory speech, Samba-Panza — who won 75 votes against 53 for Desire Kolingba, the son of a former president — called for an end to violence by the mostly Muslim Seleka ex-rebels and Christian self-defense militias known as “anti-balaka” (anti-machete).
“I’m launching a resounding appeal to my anti-balaka children who are listening to me: Show your support for my nomination by giving the strong signal of laying down your weapons,” said Samba-Panza, who is Christian but did not campaign on a religious platform.
“To my ex-Seleka children who are also listening to me: Lay down your weapons,” she said.
“Stop the suffering of the people.”
The 59-year-old called herself “the president of all Central Africans, without exclusion,” and said her top priority was “to stop people’s suffering, to restore security and the authority of the state across the country.”
EU foreign ministers, meanwhile, agreed to send hundreds of troops to the country in a rare joint military mission.
The mission, which will deploy in and around the capital and last up to six months, is expected to involve the rapid deployment of a force numbering anywhere from 400 to 1,000.
The troops will help back up 1,600 French soldiers and the African Union’s MISCA force, which currently has 4,400 troops on the ground.
International donors also pledged $496 million in aid to the country this year.
Samba-Panza’s election comes 10 months after the Seleka rebels overthrew the government and installed their leader, Michel Djotodia, as the country’s first Muslim president.
But Djotodia proved powerless to control his fighters, and many went on a rampage of killing, rapes and looting targeting the Christian majority.
Some Christian communities responded by forming self-defense militias and attacking Muslims. Rights watchdogs accuse both sides of major abuses, and the United Nations has warned of a potential inter-religious genocide.
Djotodia resigned under international pressure on Jan. 10.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday the Central African Republic is “caught in a crisis of epic proportions.”
“The CAR is in free fall. . . . We must act together, and act now, to pull CAR back from the brink of further atrocities,” he said in a statement.
The U.N.’s top human rights body appointed an expert to probe violations in the country, Cote d’Ivoire national Marie-Therese Keita Bocoum, who has previously worked in Burundi and Sudan’s Darfur region.
A team of U.N. investigators who spent nearly two weeks in the CAR last month reported a litany of gross human rights violations, including killings, kidnappings, torture and rape.
“The mission received consistent, credible testimony and photographs supporting allegations that anti-balaka mutilated Muslim men, women and children, before or after they were killed,” said U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay.
The violence has uprooted a million people out of a population of 4.6 million, and the U.N. estimates 2.6 million need urgent humanitarian aid.
Relief workers said they have found at least 73 more bodies of people killed in the north since Friday.
Christians and Muslims had previously lived in relative peace in the impoverished country, but it has had a long chain of coups and rebellions since independence in 1960.
Residents of Bangui, where outbreaks of brutal violence still spread fear despite the presence of foreign troops, voiced elation at Samba-Panza’s election.
“We’re wild with joy because we’ve been freed, because we’ve found a new president,” said 19-year-old Jean-Franklin Debonheur, one of dozens who took to the street in celebration in the capital’s central Miskine district.
“At last we can forget Seleka. I’m happy. It warms my heart to see a woman lead the country,” said Diane, 22.
France, the country’s former colonial ruler, welcomed Samba-Panza’s election and urged her to hold speedy national polls. As interim leader she is tasked with organizing general elections by mid-2015, though France is pressing for them to be held this year.
“It now falls to her to assure the needed peace and reconciliation in CAR, with a view to holding democratic elections,” French President Francois Hollande said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called Samba-Panza “an absolutely remarkable woman.”