Michel Djotodia, the rebel leader who seized control of Central African Republic only to see the desperately poor country tumble toward anarchy and sectarian bloodshed that left more than 1,000 people dead, agreed to resign Friday along with his prime minister, regional officials announced.
On the streets of Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, there was jubilation about the possibility that the terrible security situation might change.
"Finally we are free! We are going to return home at last," said Carine Gbegbe, 28, who has been living in a displacement camp on the southern outskirts of the capital.
There has been growing pressure for Djotodia to step aside as the fighting between Christians and Muslims has escalated. His resignation should help placate the armed Christian militias known as the anti-balaka who have used violence to seek his ouster. However, his departure could also create an even greater power vacuum in a land that has long known coups and dictatorship.
Djotodia's exit was "inevitable" after he was heavily criticized by French President Francois Hollande and other key players in the international community, said Thibaud Lesueur, an analyst with International Crisis Group.
"Having new transitional authorities doesn't automatically equal the end of the violence in CAR but the resignation of Djotodia was a key claim of the anti-balaka fighters and of the population as a whole," he said.
In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman said the U.S. hoped the resignations Friday would allow Central African Republic to move forward.
"We urge CAR's National Transition Council to now conduct a transparent, inclusive process as they deliberate on the selection of the new transitional president," U.S. spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, adding that a new election should be held no later than February 2015.
Nearly 1 million displaced
Djotodia wielded little control over the armed rebels who brought him to power — some of whom may not be eager now to return to the hinterlands of the north. It also remains to be seen whether the foreign fighters from neighboring Sudan and Chad who backed Djotodia will now leave the country.
Nearly 1 million Central Africans have been displaced in the upheaval. Gunfire from suspected ex-Seleka rang out in several neighborhoods across Bangui on Friday afternoon, residents said.
"The door to peace has now been opened," said Appolinaire Donoboy, who works at the airport where some 100,000 people have sought protection in the past month and have set up a sprawling and crowded encampment. "We are very happy about Djotodia's departure but there are still too many weapons in Bangui."
Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International's senior crisis response adviser, warned that the situation is tenuous and called for more peacekeepers.
"Today's resignation by Djotodia could easily trigger revenge attacks by the anti-balaka Christian militias against the Muslim community," she said. "The Muslim ex-Seleka forces are also heavily armed, creating a real risk of the violence escalating even further. The safety and protection of civilians have to be paramount."
France has sent some 1,600 troops in an effort to stabilize the country and an African peacekeeping force has provided thousands of additional soldiers.
More than 1,000 killed in fighting
Ahmat Allami, the secretary-general of the Economic Community of Central African States, made the announcement of Djotodia's departure at the conclusion of a summit in neighboring Chad on the crisis. Legislators from Central African Republic also were flown to the Chadian capital of N'Djamena on Thursday to take part in the discussions.
Djotodia's departure leaves the country in the hands of a weak transitional government. Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye, a longtime opposition leader prior to the March 2013 coup, is also stepping aside, Allami said. Under its charter, the national transitional council led by Alexandre Ferdinand Nguendet now has 15 days to choose another interim president to replace Djotodia.
Central African Republic has long been one of the world's most unstable countries. The March 2013 coup brought heavily armed rebels to power who then proceeded to carry out atrocities against civilians, tying people together and throwing them off bridges to drown. The rebels are mostly from the minority Muslim population and hail from the country's long-marginalized north, and the resentment toward their abuses transformed the conflict into one with religious undertones.
In early December, a Christian militia backed by loyalists of ousted President Francois Bozize attacked the capital. In the violent aftermath, more than 1,000 people were killed and nearly 1 million fled their homes in fear. An estimated 100,000 people alone have sought shelter at the airport being guarded by French troops.