BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) -- Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza urged fighters to put down their arms as she took the oath of office Thursday, even as looters pillaged Muslim neighborhoods and sectarian tensions escalated in the anarchic Central African Republic.
Samba-Panza, the nation’s first female leader, was sworn in at a ceremony days after being chosen by a national transitional council. The rebel leader behind the March 2013 coup stepped aside nearly two weeks ago under mounting international criticism of his inability to control his fighters and stem the violence.
In her inaugural address, Samba-Panza urged both the Muslim fighters behind the coup and the Christian militiamen who rose up in opposition to support peace.
"I strongly call on the fighters to show patriotism in putting down their weapons," she said. "The ongoing disorder in the country will no longer be tolerated."
Central African Republic has been wracked by sectarian violence for months, with more than 1,000 people killed in Bangui over the course of several days in December alone. Nearly 1 million people have fled their homes, with 100,000 of them living in and around the Bangui airport being guarded by French soldiers.
U.N. officials have warned that the crisis is at high risk of escalating into a genocide, driven by fighting between Christian and Muslim communities in the country with a history of coups and dictatorship.
Christian Bernis Latakpi, 24, a university student, said he hoped that Samba-Panza, who has been mayor of Bangui since June, would bring much-needed reconciliation after months of bloodshed.
"Since independence, men have always run the country and they have failed at the job," he said. "We’re looking to her to quickly bring security and to reunite our Muslim and Christian brothers. Because the Muslim Central Africans -- they were born here, grew up here and we can’t disown them. Now it’s up to the mother to reconcile these different communities."
Yet even in the hours leading up to her inauguration, tensions flared across Bangui. Hundreds of Christians went on a rampage Wednesday, looting and setting fire to Muslim-owned homes and businesses and threatening to go on a killing spree.
Rwandan peacekeepers and French forces intervened late Wednesday to rescue about 30 Muslims trapped inside their homes by marauding gangs in the PK13 district of Bangui, witnesses said. The help arrived after international human rights activists pleaded for help for the families.
"If these people are not evacuated within the next hour, they will be dead tomorrow. As soon as we leave they will be killed," urged Peter Bouckaert, emergency director at Human Rights Watch.
As night fell, French forces provided a truck to take the family and their few belongings to a nearby refugee camp of Muslims under international protection.
Muslim civilians have come under growing threat following the 10-month rule of coup leader Michel Djotodia and his mostly Muslim fighters who were blamed for scores of atrocities against the predominantly Christian population. A Christian militia launched a coup attempt last month that unleashed bloodshed. Djotodia finally surrendered power about two weeks ago.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has welcomed Samba-Panza’s selection, saying "she has a unique opportunity to advance the political transition process, bring all the parties together to end the violence, and move her country toward elections not later than February 2015."
African countries have contributed some 4,600 peacekeepers to Central African Republic, and France has sent 1,600 troops. Among the countries helping is Rwanda, which suffered through genocide in 1994 that left more than 500,000 people dead.
On Wednesday, a Rwandan captain in Bangui told a mob surrounding a Muslim resident’s home how his own people had suffered. Even if the pain is still there, he said, they are learning to live together again.
No one seemed to listen. Moments later, a school teacher joined women and children in looting a predominantly Muslim neighborhood.
"I am just stealing from the thieves," the teacher said.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Andrew Drake and Jerome Delay in Bangui, Central African Republic, contributed to this report.
Follow Krista Larson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/klarsonafrica.