A peace deal has been reached between the government of the Central African Republic and 14 armed groups after their first-ever direct dialogue aimed at ending years of conflict, the United Nations and African Union announced on Saturday.
Details of the deal were not immediately available. Talks began Jan. 24 in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.
“I am determined to work with the president and his government to address the concerns of our brothers who took up arms,” said Firmin Ngrebada, the cabinet director of the Central African Republic, according to the United Nations.
The agreement represents rare hope for the impoverished, landlocked nation where religious and communal fighting has been ongoing since 2013. Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in a conflict that has sent at least two people to the International Criminal Court.
“This is a great day for Central African Republic and all its people,” said Smail Chergui, the African Union commissioner for peace and security.
The fighting in Central African Republic has carried the high risk of genocide, the United Nations has warned. Scores of mosques have been burned. Priests and other religious leaders have been killed. Many Muslims have fled the country.
After more than 40 people were killed in a rebel attack on a displaced persons camp in November, both the leader of the 13,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission and the country’s prime minister, Simplice Sarandji, acknowledged shortcomings in the response.
“I knew that we did not have all the necessary means to protect our people,” the prime minister said.
The fighting began in 2013 when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the capital, Bangui. Mostly Christian anti-Balaka militias fought back. Violence intensified and spread last year after a period of relative peace as armed groups battle over lands rich in gold, diamonds and uranium.
In a grim report last year marking five years of conflict, the Unicef said fighters often target civilians rather than each other, attacking health facilities and schools, mosques and churches and camps for the displaced. At least half of the more than 640,000 people displaced are children, it said, and thousands are thought to have joined the armed groups, often under pressure.
Last month the chief of Central African Republic’s soccer federation appeared at the International Criminal Court for the first time since he was arrested last year in France on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona is accused of leading the anti-Balaka for at least a year early in the fighting.
In November a Central African Republic militia leader and lawmaker, Alfred Yekatom, made his first ICC appearance, accused of crimes including murder, torture and using child soldiers. He allegedly commanded some 3,000 fighters in a predominantly Christian militia in and around the capital early in the fighting. He was arrested last year after firing gunshots in parliament.
So far, no Seleka fighters have been publicly targeted by the court.
As the peace talks began last month, the Norwegian Refugee Council warned of “catastrophe” if no agreement was reached, saying repeated cycles of violence in one of the world’s poorest nations had “pushed people’s resistance to breaking point.”
A majority of Central African Republic’s 2.9 million people urgently need humanitarian support, the group said.
On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to extend an arms embargo on the country for a year but raised the possibility that it could be lifted earlier as the government has long urged.
Orignially published in NYT.