BANGUI Rival armed groups in Central African Republic agreed on Sunday to a peace accord requiring them to disarm and potentially face justice for war crimes committed during two years of conflict.
The agreement signed between 10 armed groups and the Defense Ministry during a peace forum in the capital, Bangui, aims to draw a line under a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced nearly a million people in the impoverished former French colony.
"On the path towards peace, the step made today is a very important one," said Babacar Gaye, the top U.N. official in the country.
Violence flared up in March 2013 when mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power, sparking reprisals from anti-balaka, or anti-machete, Christian militia, who then drove the bulk of the Muslim population out of the south.
While a transitional government led by Catherine Samba-Panza is now in place and some order has returned, isolated killings continue.
"The fighters of all the armed groups accept and commit to putting a definitive end to the armed conflicts in Central African Republic," the agreement said.
"They are committed to disposing their arms and renouncing armed fighting as a means of making political claims and to enter into the process of Disarmament, Demobilisation, Reinsertion and Repatriation (DDRR)," it added.
The process, which envisages some members of armed factions being absorbed into the army, will be supported by a 10,000- strong U.N. peacekeeping mission.
French and European Union military forces are withdrawing and elections are due to be held later this year.
In another sign of hope for Central African Republic, which has a long history of instability and conflict, armed factions agreed last week to free all child soldiers and other children used as sex slaves or menial workers.
The peace forum, also attended by government officials, international partners as well as religious and civil society leaders, called for urgent creation of a special criminal court in the country.
Those involved in the "crime of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity" would be denied amnesty, the agreement said.
Fighters from the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group that rose up against the Ugandan government in the 1980s, are also present in the country. The forum recommended the creation of a commission to investigate the group's activities there.
(Additional reporting by Serge Leger Kokpakpa; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Peter Cooney)