BANGUI — The Central African Republic’s transitional parliament was set on 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 on 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 Mr Djotodia in his place.
But with more than 600,000 square kilometres to cover, they have been unable to restore order.
The International Committee for the Red Cross said late on 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 (the 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 Mr Djotodia, party leaders, active soldiers and anyone who has belonged to a militia or rebel group in the past 20 years.
Although the Seleka were disbanded after installing Mr 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 country before a general election that must be held in the first half of 2015.
He or she will be elected in a single round of voting conducted by secret ballot, with the results announced immediately afterwards.
In Bangui, African and French troops were out in force in the streets on Sunday in case of fresh unrest ahead of the parliamentary vote.
About 4,400 African troops and 1,600 French soldiers have been deployed to try to restore order in the impoverished country, but both missions have been calling for back-up.
Ahead of an European Union meeting on Monday expected to approve the deployment of 500 European soldiers to help secure Bangui’s airport, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Europe could not leave France alone in its bid to restore order in the country.
Clashes raged in several remote parts of the country on Saturday, and Save the Children said a grenade attack on Friday on a truck convoy carrying Muslims fleeing to the northwest had killed 23 people, including three children.
An officer with the Misca African peacekeeping force said "there is some violence nearly everywhere", pointing to Bouar in the west near the border with Cameroon, the town of Sibut north of Bangui, and Boali to the northwest of the capital.
Roughly 700 Muslims, mostly women and children, have taken refuge the past two nights at the Catholic parish church in Boali, according to the abbot, Xavier Fagba. About 70 French troops are guarding the modest church with a corrugated steel roof, where sanitary conditions are already deteriorating.
Local priest Boris Wiligale said earlier that French forces had disarmed the Seleka rebels in the town but that Christian militias had seized the opportunity to come out of the bush.
Mr Fagba said he was concerned over what would happen if the French troops left. "Now we need trucks to evacuate all these people, it’s urgent," he said.
The Muslims cannot contemplate taking to the road without protection, as Christian vigilantes frequently set up impromptu roadblocks.
"Do something to get us out of here," an old man pleaded outside the church.