A peace accord aimed at ending years of violence in the Central African Republic remains solid, the country's president affirmed Thursday, despite a fierce clash between rival militias this week and the departure of two rebel leaders from their government posts.
"These are setbacks but we hope that they won't endanger the accord," President Faustin-Archange Touadera told AFP in an interview in Paris after holding talks with France's Emmanuel Macron.
"I think the accord is quite strong, it has the support of the entire international community and the Central African people," he said.
Around a dozen people were killed in the outburst of fighting last Sunday and Monday in Birao, a town in the far north, Touadera said, by rival groups who had nonetheless signed the peace deal reached in February.
The UN's peacekeeping force in the country denounced the "rare violence" of the clash, in which market stalls were burned and thousands of residents fled.
The peace accord with the 14 militias vying for control of the country's gold, diamond and other resources came after years of conflict since the ousting of Touadera's predecessor Francois Bozize in 2013.
"We signed an accord that should stop such incidents," Touadera said.
"But as you know, when weapons are still in circulation, these types of events are possible."
Yet the fragile peace accord was further threatened Thursday with the departure of a second influential militia chief from his government post, just days after the head of another main militia leader quit.
Touadera has been struggling to prove he can convince the militias, which collectively control more than three-quarters of the territory, to lay down their arms.
"Some people are working against peace and trying to instrumentalise this accord to show that it won't work," he said.
"But I've said again and again, for now this is the only way to restore peace."
Russia's role defended
Macron on Thursday called on his Central African counterpart to "undertake all efforts" to end the years of violence in the former French colony.
The French president, who first hosted Touadera for talks in Paris in 2017, stressed the importance of holding "free and inclusive" elections at the end of 2020.
France has provided weapons and training for Touadera's forces, and still has around 300 troops in the country after a major military invention from 2013 to 2016 amid fears the country's was on the verge of a Rwanda-style genocide.
But more recently Touadera has also welcomed aid and equipment from Russia, including some 170 training instructors widely thought to be mercenaries working closely with Russian mining companies.
French officials are warily eyeing Moscow's inroads in a country it considers part of its zone of influence, but Touadera said the Russian help was "complementary" to France's actions.
"We invite all our partners to support us, they act with full transparency in the country," he said.
"We don't see any conflict... there are plenty of areas where our different partners can participate, whether it's the EU, the United Nations, the African Union or neighbouring countries," he said.
Touadera's government has repeatedly asked for a UN arms embargo to be lifted to allow his poorly equipped forces to reassert state authority across the country.
But the UN has demanded that it first make progress on reintegrating rebels into the security forces.
Thousands of people have been killed and about a fifth of the population of 4.5 million displaced in the wake of the 2013 coup.