BANGUI - A powerful militia in Central African Republic said on Saturday it will only disarm once its main rivals, the mainly Muslim Seleka fighters, lay down their weapons, a deadlock that risks prolonging the crisis in the war-torn country.
The "anti-balaka" self defence militia was formed last year to defend Christian communities targeted by Seleka forces who ousted the president in March, triggering cycles of revenge killings that continue to grip the country despite the deployment of thousands of foreign peacekeepers.
Seleka fighters have in recent weeks been forced out of power and scattered, mainly to the north. But Muslims who stayed behind have been targeted, and France now believes the largely Christian militia is the main obstacle to peace.
"We will lay down (our weapons) in the centre of town in front of the international community ... only on the condition that these bandits are disarmed first," Sebastien Wenezoui, spokesman for the "anti-balaka" force said on Saturday.
Wenezoui said that fighters from around Bangui, the crumbling capital that has seen hundreds of thousands of its residents forced from their homes by street battles and lynchings, would hand over all the weapons they owned.
French and African troops - which rushed in reinforcements as 1,000 people were killed in clashes during the month of December alone - have tried to disarm gunmen in the riverside capital but the city remains awash with guns and machetes.
Militia members carrying machetes and hunting rifles and adorned with amulets patrolled around their base where Wenezoui was speaking. Nearby, French troops protect the city's airport, which serves as their base.
At its peak, violence in Central African Republic displaced 1 million people, about a quarter of the country's population.
Michel Djotodia, Seleka leader and interim president after the March rebel takeover, stepped aside last month under intense international pressure after failing to halt killings.
He went into exile and his men withdrew to bases in the remote north, which borders Chad and Sudan.
France now has 1,600 soldiers operating alongside 6,000 African peacekeepers in its former colony. But foreign troops have struggled to halt attacks on Muslims caught in the void.
The commander of French forces in Central African Republic said earlier this month the "anti-balaka" forces were now the "enemies of peace" in the country.
A top U.N. official warned of "ethnic-religious cleansing" as Muslim civilians fled north or into neighbouring countries, leaving the majority Christian population in the south.
"We are ready to live alongside Muslims that were born in our country but only on the condition that the government ... holds a dialogue between the two communities," Wenezoui said, highlighting tensions with Muslims who have come from neighbouring countries, especially Chad.
The European Union says as many as 1,000 EU soldiers will be dispatched and the United Nations is mulling rolling out a peacekeeping operation.
Having originally hoped for a swift operation, France says its mission will last longer than the initial six months forecast and admits to having underestimated the depth of the hatred, which has stirred memories of Rwanda's genocide 20 years ago.
However, many in the country believe origins of the bloodshed have little to do with religion and instead blame a political battle for control over resources in one of Africa's weakest-governed states, split along ethnic fault lines and worsened by foreign meddling.