October 22, 2014 / 7:04 PM / in 3 years

Central African Republic to create rapid intervention unit, reform army

Seleka fighters stand in their base before a mission in the town of Lioto June 9, 2014.Goran Tomasevic

BANGUI (Reuters) - Central African Republic plans to create a rapid intervention unit to help rebuild its army and stamp out persistent inter-religious clashes, the country's interim leader said.

Thousands have died and around a million people have been displaced since the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel coalition seized power in the majority Christian country in March 2013.

The rebels later withdrew from the capital Bangui and ceded power to a transitional government. But their abuses prompted a backlash by the mainly Christian anti-balaka militias that has plunged the country - which is rich in diamonds, uranium and gold - into a deadly cycle of inter-communal clashes.

"Today insecurity is Central African Republic's number one problem," President Catherine Samba Panza said during an address to the country's transitional parliament on Wednesday.

"I have decided to create a rapid intervention unit as a means of efficiently protecting the population from recurring deadly attacks," she said.

France has deployed troops to its former colony, and United Nations soldiers took over peacekeeping duties from an African Union force last month. But the country has seen a spike in violence in the capital Bangui in October after anti-balaka leaders called for Samba Panza to step down.

Later in her speech, speaking in the local Sango language, she said the new intervention unit would be drawn from members of the country's army, the FACA.

Estimated at around 8,000 troops before they were routed by Seleka in 2013, few FACA soldiers remain on active duty in the country. Some have joined Seleka or the anti-balaka militias. Others, unpaid for more than a year, have simply stayed home.

Last week, Central African Republic's deputy army chief of staff called upon all FACA members to return to barracks.

Samba Panza said that she was calling upon the army leadership to take measures to reform and professionalize the security forces to better serve the people.

Last month, she asked the United Nations to consider modifying an arms embargo imposed last year so security forces could be properly equipped to work alongside U.N. peacekeepers.

"We have a problem of weapons and ammunition, but the FACA have weapons and ammunition in their homes," she said during her speech on Wednesday. "When they fled Seleka, where did they put their weapons? Let's be clear, they have arms."

Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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