Rival militiamen struck a truce Sunday and hugged each other in a neighbourhood of the Central African Republic's capital on the eve of consultations aimed at replacing the president who resigned under international pressure.
"I'm telling you, it feels good," Captain Souleyman Daouda said after changing out of his combat boots into flip-flops, though still in military fatigues.
He is a member of the Seleka rebel movement whose March 2013 coup brought to power the mainly Christian country's first Muslim president Michel Djotodia, who stepped down and left to Benin on Saturday.
Eric Feferberg, AFP
Former Seleka (rebel) captain Souleyman Daouda (centre, L) and ex-Seleka combatants pose for a photograph at a control post in the Bimbo district of Bangui on January 11, 2014
The two sides reached an accord in the Bangui neighbourhood of Bimbo at dawn on Sunday mediated by French and African peacekeepers.
The reconciliation reported by witnesses and the country's chief of staff offered a glimmer of hope that weeks of deadly sectarian violence would end following Djotodia's resignation.
"We went to the market and had a drink together," Daouda said.
"I don't know if it will last, but it was pretty good, the crowd applauded," said Roger Kombo, a Christian political official who witnessed the scene.
A Christian vigilante, Davy Louis Parfait, said: "We talked about how to make it work, asking ourselves why we were killing each other. Myself, I killed some Seleka rebels. But it was amazing, the atmosphere."
Eric Feferberg, AFP
French soldiers from the Sangaris Operation try to calm the crowd after several people throw stones at a car, transporting two children of an ex-Seleka colonel at the "UN crossroads" in Bangui on January 12, 2014
Daouda had guarded the southern exit from Bangui at Bimbo, which was reopened Sunday after a tense night.
Parfait said he was a former army soldier who joined a Christian militia formed to defend against and avenge excesses committed by the former rebels after they killed his daughter.
He is among hundreds of former soldiers who formed vigilante groups after Christians suffered persecution at the hands of the new minority Muslim government, in their turn committing killings and looting.
Also Sunday, interim president Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet went to the airport where some 100,000 people were sheltering to urge them to return home.
Earlier in the day the Constitutional Court ordered Nguendet to organise the election of a new transitional president within two weeks.
A map of the Central African Republic's capital Bangui showing the position of government and rebel forces
Sunday's reconciliation followed deadly weekend violence including reports of cannibalism and widespread looting in the capital Bangui. The situation was calmer overnight Saturday but looting was still occurring Sunday.
Central African chief of staff General Ferdinand Bomboyeke confirmed witness accounts of the laying down of arms which he said occurred after a "deal obtained" by the rivals fighting for days in Bimbo.
It was the first scene of its kind in Bangui following weeks of bloody sectarian violence.
The fighters "hugged each other. They asked for forgiveness as people cheered," government official Roger Kombo told AFP.
Badji Baba, AFP
President of the Central African transitional parliament Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, acting as interim president, pictured in Bangui on January 10, 2014
Daouda told AFP that "we reached a ceasefire" with the Christian militiamen in the area.
"There were negotiations all night. Early this morning we met. We told each other that we had no reason to fight since Djotodia is gone. We await instructions from the future authorities."
'Free, democratic, transparent elections'
Eric Feferberg, AFP/File
Central African Republic president Michel Djotodia arrives at Mpoko Bangui airport in the capital Bangui on January 8, 2014
The National Transition Council, or provisional parliament, said it will begin consultations on Monday with politicians and civil society members in a bid to elect Djotodia's successor.
The council's deputy speaker Lea Koyassoum Doumta sketched out the criteria the new president must meet.
"He must be someone who can unite Central Africans, restore security, ease tensions, put everybody back to work and pave the way for free, democratic and transparent elections," she told AFP.
Doumta said he must also "reassure" the ex-Seleka rebels as well as the Christian "anti-balaka" groups.
The new president will inherit a country in turmoil with a climate of sectarian hatred, nearly a million people displaced in a country of 4.6 million, an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, a paralysed government administration and an economy in chaos.
He will have little time to work magic even if he benefits from the political, military and financial support of the international community; the timetable for the transition calls for general elections to be held no later than the first half of 2015.
But France, the former colonial power which is spearheading international efforts to end the crisis here, wants elections to be held as early as the end of 2014.
Under the constitution that came into force when Djotodia came to power, the transitional president is excluded from running in the elections.
Despite the positive developments, there was still looting Sunday.
Ten months of violence have displaced a fifth of the country's population, and the sectarian flare-up has killed more than 1,000 people in the past month alone, despite France's military intervention and the presence of the African peacekeeping force.
France has deployed 1,600 troops in the country to support MISCA, which is meant to have up to 6,000 troops but has not yet reached 3,500.