LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Central African Republic's government and rebels agreed to the formation of a national unity government under a ceasefire deal on Friday to end an insurgency that swept to within striking distance of the capital.
The agreement, signed in Gabon's coastal capital after three days of negotiations mediated by regional neighbours, eases the biggest threat yet to President Francois Bozize's decade in charge of the minerals-rich former French colony.
"This is a good deal to bring peace," rebel spokesman Eric Massi told Reuters by telephone. "But the ceasefire is contingent on several of our demands being met and we will judge Mr. Bozize's sincerity in the coming days."
Massi said that among the Seleka rebel coalition's demands was the release of political prisoners and the withdrawal of most of the foreign forces deployed to reinforce the country's military.
The deal also calls for the new transitional government to have a prime minister drawn from the opposition and for a parliamentary election to be held within 12 months.
Seleka launched its insurgency in early December, accusing Bozize of reneging on a 2007 peace deal supposed to provide jobs and money to insurgents who laid down their weapons.
The rebels had previously insisted that Bozize's resignation was a precondition for peace and that the president, who seized power in a Chadian-backed 2003 coup, should stand trial at the International Criminal Court.
Chad President Idriss Deby, who attended the signing ceremony, said the deal would allow Bozize to complete his mandate, which expires in 2016.
"We have not undermined the integrity of the constitution of Central African Republic. President Bozize was elected for a five-year term and he should carry on until that is finished," Deby told reporters.
U.N. special envoy to the Central African Republic, Margaret Vogt, told the U.N. Security Council on Friday that the government and the rebels needed to discuss why past peace deals had not worked to avoid a failure of the new agreement.
"We are hopeful that the agreements that were signed today in Libreville will contain the immediate flair-up and will calm the situation in CAR," Vogt told the 15-member council via video-link from Libreville.
"However, failure to go further to discuss the reasons for the lack of implementation of previous agreements and to correct these may lead to another melt-down, a few years down the line again, as a result of lost expectations and frustrations."
Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in the region where U.S. Special Forces are helping local soldiers hunt down the Lord's Resistance Army, an unrelated rebel group that has killed thousands of civilians across four nations.
The country remains one of the least developed on the planet despite rich deposits of gold, diamonds and uranium.
Vogt described the Central African Republic as an "aid orphan" and called for investment in peace and development to prevent the country from "falling down a slippery slope."
She said security was fundamental and that the success of the insurgency had been more a result of the failure of the government security forces than of the capacity of the rebels, adding that the army had "lost cohesion and the will to fight."
"Many of the soldiers simply dropped their weapons and melted into the bush," Vogt said.
"The international community now needs to engage more forcefully, both diplomatically and financially, to pull CAR from the brink," she said, adding that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had given the country the "same level of priority that he has accorded to Syria, Somalia and Mali."
Additional reporting by Phal Gualbert Mezui Ndong in Libreville, Richard Valdmanis in Dakar and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Daniel Flynn and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Alison Williams and Vicki Allen