WASHINGTON – The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations plans an eight-hour visit to the Central African Republic to press transitional leaders to hold people accountable for vicious acts of violence and force armed groups to lay down their weapons to restore calm in the country shattered by violence and fear.
As she prepared for the visit on Thursday, Samantha Power told reporters in a conference call from Abuja, Nigeria, that while much discussion has focused on the role of international forces, the responsibility to protect the citizens of the Central African Republic begins with the transitional leadership.
In March, an alliance of mostly Muslim rebels from the north tossed out the country's Christian president in a coup that brought President Michel Djotodia to power. Djotodia led the Muslim rebels who overthrew the government. Since then, the Central African Republic has descended into chaos, with at least 500 people killed this month in the capital, Bangui.
"The transitional leadership of Central African Republic really must, itself, step up," she told reporters on Wednesday. "It must establish accountability for abuses that have been carried out and atrocities that have been carried out so far. It has to begin to heal the wounds and begin to rebuild this country."
Central African Republic, a country smaller than Texas in the heart of Africa, is about 85 percent Christian. The nation had little history of sectarian violence before the rebellion overthrew the government nearly nine months ago. Armed individuals, however, are now fomenting religious divisions and directly attacking citizens along religious lines. Rebels who overthrew the government have been blamed for scores of atrocities.
"In recent weeks, mobs have been going door to door, murdering civilians, targeting aid workers, starting fires and looting shops and homes," she said. "We know that there are nearly 400,000 people displaced by the violence — that's almost 10 percent of the country's total population."
France launched an intervention on Dec. 5, sending 1,600 troops to try to stabilize the troubled nation. French forces are working with African Union troops to persuade armed groups to lay down their weapons, allowing stability to take hold.
"This disarmament of armed groups is critical," Power said. "The violence has been vicious. It's been directed almost entirely against civilians and it has been increasingly sectarian. And only with this disarmament do we think that this violence can come to an end."
Before departing from the United States on Tuesday, Power said she spoke on the phone with Djotodia and urged him to avoid taking unilateral actions and work collaboratively with political and religious leaders and French and African Union forces.
During her visit, Power said she also planned to talk with religious leaders of all faiths and urge them to use their influence to call for unity to help restore calm.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to discuss the trip by name, said U.S. officials are concerned about allegations that Djotodia has taken steps to consolidate his power by inserting up to 5,000 rebel fighters into the country's national security force.
The official said Power would urge Djotodia to ensure that security services meet professional standards, be vetted for their human rights records and be representative of the Central African Republic's ethnic, religious and geographic diversity.