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Bangui, Central African Republic (AFP) Jan 14, 2014
The Central African Republic began the search for a peacemaker president Tuesday after months of traumatic conflict that saw unprecedented sectarian violence with almost a million people displaced.
A special session of parliament convened to elect a new interim leader for the poor landlocked country of 4.6 million people, where a terrifying spiral of atrocities pitted Muslims against the Christian majority.
Rebel-leader-turned-president Michel Djotodia resigned last week under international pressure over his failure to stem the violence that claimed 1,000 lives in the last month alone.
Opening the parliamentary session, Lea Koyassoum Doumta, the transitional ruling body's (CNT) vice president said: "We should elect a personality who will respond to the legitimate aspirations of our people who have suffered too much."
She urged CNT members "to avoid making partisan or community-led choices", but to listen to the people.
"We need someone who represents peace, national reconciliation and who will supervise future elections in a spirit of transparency," she added, telling AFP afterwards that she hoped the election would be held as early as Saturday.
"We need a neutral man, linked neither to the anti-balaka or the Seleka," said Edgar Mbaikoua, a CNT member presenting himself as "independent" at a cocktail party in the basement of the parliament building.
In Paris, French President Francois Hollande stressed that his country did not plan to interfere in its former colony's search for a leader.
"Political initiatives have been taken. We do not have the vocation to pick the leaders of Central Africa," he said.
Hollande also voiced confidence that Europe would back French peacekeeping efforts in Central Africa. France sent in troops more than a month ago.
"We have not finished our task, we have to continue it but in a very different context," he added.
A Pentagon spokesman meanwhile said US military aircraft will fly Rwandan troops to the country in the next few days as part of the MISCA African peacekeeping mission.
People remain very cautious
The violence on the ground has abated somewhat following Djotodia's resignation, with police patrolling the streets of the capital Bangui for the first time in weeks.
French and African troops also maintained a massive presence in the capital.
In a sign of improved security in Bangui, almost 150 staff at one of the main hospitals in town, the Hopital de l'Amitie, returned to work after fleeing at the height of clashes early in December, Save the Children said Tuesday.
More than 500 patients have already been admitted this week, with the premises under the guard of Burundian soldiers from the MISCA African peacekeeping force, the charity said in a statement.
"The hospital is in a very populous part of the town, where many people have been displaced. The health care needs are enormous here," hospital director Abdulkarim Zakaria said.
Despite positive signs, few of the displaced scores of thousands who had fled to a sprawling, overcrowded tent city by Bangui's airport -- where 3,500 MISCA soldiers and 1,600 French troops are based -- were willing to risk going home.
There was "no large-scale return", said a representative of medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF). "People remain very cautious. They are aware that the situation is still volatile."
'Gross human rights violations'
Current interim leader Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, the speaker of parliament, had Monday urged the displaced to return home.
Nguendet, one of about a dozen potential candidates for interim president, seemed in campaign mode when he visited soldiers at an elite administration academy on Tuesday, saying: "I am the man of the situation."
Also Tuesday, a UN report said exactions had decreased in recent days but that the situation remained unstable, adding that around 40 deaths had been recorded in Bangui since Friday.
UN special representative Babacar Gaye said he was optimistic of a quick resolution to the political crisis but warned that "hatred is still present" between Muslims and Christians.
Djotodia, the first Muslim to lead the mainly Christian country, resigned at a summit of his regional peers after failing to halt the inter-religious violence in the wake of a March coup that ousted president Francois Bozize.
He proved unable to control his mainly Muslim Seleka rebels, whose looting, killing and raping spree sparked revenge attacks from Christian militias set up to defend against them.
Whoever is elected interim president will not be able to stand for elections due to be held no later than the first half of 2015.
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