BANGUI Central African Republic's interim leader is weighing a possible amnesty for militias involved in Christian-Muslim violence that has killed hundreds of people, most of them civilians, in exchange for their disarmament.
The majority-Christian country has been paralyzed by cycles of killing, torture and looting since Michel Djotodia's mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in March.
Djotodia has since lost control of his former fighters, whose abuses have led to the emergence of militias, known as the anti-balaka, meaning anti-machete in the local Sango language, opposing them.
In a sign of continued instability within the transitional administration, Djotodia dismissed three members government on Sunday, including Security Minister Josue Binoua whose home was raided by police during the violence last week.
More than 1,600 French troops deployed this month to try to stop the violence that has displaced more than 680,000 people - nearly one-seventh of the country's inhabitants - according to the United Nations.
The former rebel leader said in a state radio address late on Saturday that he had been contacted by a representative of the mainly Christian and animist anti-balaka, who were demanding inclusion in the transitional government he leads.
Elections are due to take place in 2015, however the government in Bangui exerts little control even within the capital.
"The anti-balaka sent us an emissary and said they want to lay down their weapons and leave the bush, but they fear for their security. They gave preconditions ... They asked for an amnesty and entrance into government," Djotodia said.
"Contacts are already established and we will pursue these exchanges in the interest of peace for all Central Africans," he added. "We don't see the harm, because this is the price of peace."
The anti-balaka, along with gunmen loyal to ousted President Francois Bozize, attacked Bangui last week, triggering more killings and reprisals that have deepened inter-religious conflict. More than 500 people were killed and 189,000 have been displaced in the capital alone.
A government spokesman said that Djotodia was not ruling out any of the demands made by the anti-balaka and was planning to reach out to other groups for similar talks - which might also mean the Seleka rebels.
"The president will consider anything that will lead to peace in Central African Republic," Guy-Simplice Kodegue said.
In a handwritten press statement seen by Reuters on Sunday, an anti-balaka group calling itself the Youth of the Anti-Balaka Revolution called upon its members to observe an immediate ceasefire to give peace talks a chance.
It was unclear how many fighters the group represented.
Rights groups expressed skepticism over whether an agreement with the loosely affiliated militias could bring peace.
"I think the question is whether there is enough structure among the anti-balaka to deliver on promises to lay down arms" said Peter Bouckaert, emergency director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Central African Republic is rich in diamonds, gold and uranium, but it has seen little stability and, since independence in 1960, France has intervened there more than in any other former colony.
The firing of the three ministers on Sunday risks worsening tensions because it was not carried out under the terms of an accord that led to the formation of the transitional government.
Government spokesman Kodegue said a number of crates of weapons of all calibers and some military material were found at the security minister's house.
"Minister Binoua always claimed not to have weapons for the gendarmes and police. Where did these arms crates come from?"
Binoua could not immediately be reached for comment.
Finance Minister Christophe Mbremaidou, who Kodegue said had been unreachable during the crisis, was also sacked, along with Rural Development Minister Joseph Bedounga, who was accused of criticizing the government during the violence.
A senior government official, however, told Reuters that Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye had not signed off on the dismissals as required under the terms of the country's transitional administration.
"He was not even consulted and only heard about it like everyone else over the radio," the official said, calling Djotodia's changes to the cabinet "null and void".
(Additional reporting by Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Alison Williams and Mohammad Zargham)