UNITED NATIONS -- The peace agreement signed earlier this month by the Central African Republic's government and 14 rebel groups "could be a turning point" in the history of the conflict-torn country despite persistent dangers, the U.N. envoy for the impoverished nation said Thursday.
Parfait Onanga-Anyanga told the U.N. Security Council that there is reason "to rejoice" at the first agreement reached in face-to-face negotiations, but cautioned "we must be vigilant because the situation remains grave."
"We all know — Central Africans first and foremost — that this is just a first step," he said. "The most difficult lies before us. The true test will be the comprehensive, implementation in good faith of the agreement."
Onanga-Anyanga, in his last briefing to the council before stepping down, urged all parties "to scrupulously honor all their commitments" and engage in dialogue — not violence.
Central African Republic has seen deadly interreligious and intercommunal fighting since 2013, when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the capital and mainly Christian anti-Balaka militias fought back, resulting in thousands of people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
A period of relative peace followed in late 2015 and 2016, but violence since then has intensified and spread. The 30-page peace pact, negotiated in Sudan and signed on Feb. 6, is the eighth since fighting began in 2013 and the first where armed groups, who control around 80 percent of the impoverished country, held direct talks with the government.
The agreement focuses on four main points: victims, justice, peace and national reconciliation.
It commits armed groups to respecting the legitimacy of the country's institutions, and renouncing the use of arms and violence against the country's defense and security forces, U.N. personnel, and humanitarian workers.
Smail Chergui, the African Union commissioner for peace and security, told the council that the agreement's provisions aim "to transform those who are carrying weapons today into people who serve the security of the country in the future."
He said the direct negotiations and discussion of the deep-rooted causes of the crisis in Central African Republic, including poverty, the absence of justice and unfair distribution of national wealth, provided a new approach to the eventual agreement.
The rival groups heard "that some people are drinking the water alongside the animals in some regions of the country," he said. "How do we respond to the needs of the people? In certain parts of the country, people don't know what civilization is, don't know what roads are, health care, hospitals."
Chergui made "a solemn appeal" to the council and friends of Central African Republic "to try to find means for immediate action — and I do stress that word immediate — so that we can implement the agreement, but above all so that we can give hope to people" given the level of suffering and very difficult humanitarian situation in the country.
"There's also a need to respect the unity and territorial integrity of this country and to set aside religious or ethnic disagreements so that finally we can make progress and can address the main enemy, which is poverty — the main enemy of development," he said.
Chergui and Onanga-Anyanga both stressed the importance of support from the Security Council, neighboring countries and the international community to ensure implementation of the peace agreement.
"We don't have any illusions," Chergui said. "This approach will not work unless friends of Central Africa and partners unite their efforts in response."