Central African Republic civilian leaders threaten to boycott peace talks
BANGUI/PARIS (Reuters) - Key political and religious groups in strifetorn Central African Republic on Friday threatened to boycott peace talks in the neighboring Republic of Congo, saying their county's future should be resolved at home.
French diplomatic sources played down the threat, saying the talks planned in Brazzaville this month are aimed at bringing together Christian "anti-balaka" militias and Muslim Seleka rebels to negotiate a ceasefire which must be in place before any real political process can be launched.
The former French colony was plunged into violence after the takeover of the majority Christian country last year by Seleka, a mostly Muslim rebel force. Its abuses while in power led to the creation of defense militia and cycles of killing.
The rebels stepped down earlier this year under intense international pressure but a weak interim government and thousands of French and African peacekeepers have struggled to stamp out violence between Muslim and Christian communities.
"The political and religious leaders find it inappropriate to go to Brazzaville to resolve Central Africa's problems," said a statement signed by 59 political parties and the three main religious chiefs.
"They call on (Congo's President) Denis Sassou N'Guesso to arrange an inclusive meeting on Central African soil between Central Africans to reach a lasting solution to this crisis."
The Central African Republic has deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals but remains one of the world's poorest states, with a history of internal strife and the spillover from conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The boycott threat reflects resentment of outside interference, after a rebellion that was boosted by fighters from neighboring Chad and Sudan and a string of failed peace initiatives brokered by regional powers.
A French diplomatic source said the priority was to get the anti-balaka and Seleka fighters to sign a deal. "After that real work can begin on a political process," the source said.
The United Nations, African Union and regional mediator Sassou N'Guesso are trying to identify credible figures for the July 21-23 summit in Brazzaville.
Complicating matters, the interim government has said that nobody with blood on their hands should be part of the talks.
When asked about the threat of a boycott by politicians and civil society, French officials said it was in their interests for the anti-balaka and Seleka to strike a deal.
"For several months political parties have done very little, are not contributing to the process and are already in election mode, but we tell them if you continue like this there won't be an election. It's in your interest," the official said.
France has about 2,000 soldiers in the country and some 6,000 African Union troops there will in September be rehatted as U.N. peacekeepers. The foreign troops have struggled to halt waves of reprisal killings across a vast area in which a million people have fled their homes.
The French sources said interim President Catharine Samba-Panza was starting to show results in efforts to improve the administration and economy despite some local and international criticism of her administration's failure to curb violence.
The French sources backed plans for elections to be held in February 2015. "There is no change to that timeframe for now," a second French official said.