BANGUI (Reuters) - The rebel leader who seized power in Central African Republic and proclaimed himself president accepted on Thursday a call by regional leaders to speed up a transition to democracy, but could stay in office, his information minister said.
Michel Djotodia led thousands of rebel fighters of the Seleka coalition into the riverside capital of the mineral-rich country on March 24, toppling President Francois Bozize.
African heads of state refused to recognize Djotodia as the country’s legitimate leader at a summit in Chad on Wednesday and called for the creation of a transitional council to lead the nation to elections within 18 months.
“(Djotodia) accepted all of the recommendations made in N‘Djamena ... He accepted all the schemes outlined by the heads of state,” Christophe Gazam Betty told reporters following a meeting between Djotodia and regional foreign ministers.
African and Western leaders have condemned the seizure of power by the rebels, who accused Bozize of failing to implement previous peace agreements. The African Union suspended the former French colony and imposed sanctions on Djotodia while Washington said he was not a legitimate leader.
Djotodia has already tried to contain international condemnation by creating a transitional government headed by a civilian prime minister, Nicolas Tiangaye, and promising elections in three years.
However, the regional leaders called for the creation of a transitional body elected by all of the country’s political actors and rebel groups to be charged with drawing up a new constitution and preparing the way for elections.
Under the plan, the council’s head will serve as Central African Republic’s president during the transition, which Gazam Betty said could allow Djotodia to keep his current position, this time with international approval.
“Everyone will be a candidate. If Mr Djotodia, after all he’s done to date, wants to be a candidate, I see no reason why he wouldn’t be president,” he said.
South African President Jacob Zuma, who attended the summit in Chad, announced late on Wednesday that he would be withdrawing his country’s troops from Central African Republic.
The killing of at least 13 South African soldiers by the rebels during the March 24 onslaught has prompted questions about South African’s role in the country, and how a military training mission there became entangled in an internal conflict.
South African media reports have suggested the soldiers were defending South African mining interests, but officials in Pretoria have denied this. They say the presence of the 400 South African troops was covered by a 2007 bilateral defense accord with Bozize.
“South Africa and South African troops will never serve any unconstitutional government ... Because there is no constitutional government in CAR, our troops are coming back home,” Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said on Thursday.
Djotodia’s rebel movement, known as Seleka, had previously called for South African troops to leave Central African Republic. But on Thursday, Gazam Betty told Reuters that the agreement between Pretoria and Bozize’s administration would remain in effect, despite the president’s overthrow.
“South Africa wishes to review with the new Central African authorities how this cooperation will evolve. Of course it will continue. No one has said any different,” Gazam Betty said.
“There is a lot of work to do, and South Africa has a place in all that,” he said.
Additional reporting by Agnieszka Flak in Pretoria; Writing by Joe Bavier