Central African president rejigs cabinet weeks before elections

Central African Republic President Catherine Samba-Panza attends an European Union-Africa summit in Brussels April 2, 2014. REUTERS/Alain Jocard/Pool (Reuters)

By Crispin Dembassa-Kette BANGUI (Reuters) - Central African Republic's interim president replaced the defence, public security and justice ministers, state radio said on Friday, weeks before national elections that are meant to restore democratic rule after years of bloodshed. Catherine Samba Panza's decision follows consultations this month that began in the wake of inter-religious violence that killed 77 people in the capital Bangui in September. The country is preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections on Dec. 13 and a visit next month from Pope Francis on his first trip to Africa. He will give an open-air mass and visit a mosque to try to help heal the fraught religious divide. Violence has flared frequently since early 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka fighters deposed President Francois Bozize and seized control of the majority Christian country. They handed power to an interim government but not before their abuses fuelled the rise of Christian militias, known as the anti-balaka, whose attacks on Muslim civilians caused mass displacements leading to de facto partition. Under the shake-up announced late on Thursday, Joseph Bindoumi, head of the Central African League of Human Rights, replaces Marie-Noelle Koyara as defence minister. Chrysostome Sambia, a general in the gendarmerie, will serve as public security minister, while Dominique Said Paguindji, who previously held that post, becomes minister of justice. The ministers of rural development and youth were also replaced. Crowds in Bangui lynched four people on Thursday, including two who were dismembered, amid attacks and reprisals pitting Christians against Muslims. The killings brought the death toll from clashes in the capital this week to 11. Violence persisted throughout Thursday, with witnesses near the Muslim PK-5 neighbourhood saying that residents of the enclave had attacked surrounding areas. "They burned around 100 houses in the Kina neighbourhood and the other surrounding neighbourhoods," one resident said. "I live just behind the Kina church and my house was burned down. The church was also burned down." Witnesses said the situation was calmer by early Friday but some fear the recent spike in violence might threaten the polls. (Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Louise Ireland)