U.S. diplomat in Central Africa amid spasm of violence

Power makes first official overseas trip, to strife-torn nation

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BANGUI, Central African Republic — The American ambassador to the United Nations delivered a stern message on Thursday to the leaders of the strife-torn Central African Republic to stop the cycle of violence.

On her first official overseas trip, Samantha Power finds herself in an uncomfortable position: Before becoming a diplomat, she made her name as a vocal critic of Washington's response to past atrocities. Now, she is trying to spotlight the horror here, at the same time that she represents a government which has declined to join France in sending troops to quell the conflict.

Instead, the U.S. will spend $100 million to equip and train the African troops sent in to stabilize the country, including providing trucks to get them into villages in the countryside where rival Christian and Muslim militias have been attacking civilians and each other.

"The choice of the U.S. is never between doing nothing and sending in the Marines. How do we use a host of tools at our disposal?" she said, commending the French and African troops for stepping in to stop the cycle of violence so that the difficult process of reconciliation could begin. "They are putting their troops on the line here on the ground and it is very much in our interest to support them as they try to bring about stabilization and democracy."

The ambassador met with President Michel Djotodia, who swept to power with his mainly Muslim Seleka rebels in March and is now battling Christian militias around the country, some made up of soldiers from the former regime. All sides are accused of attacking civilians, at least 500 of whom died in violence in Bangui itself over the past week.

"Every day we are thinking about which tools to employ in order to try to prevent atrocities in the first instance and these cycles of violence that can very quickly take hold — very quickly kerosene can be poured on a situation and a match can be lit," she said at Bangui's airport, the air thick from the smoke of the cooking fires from the tens of thousands of people seeking refuge from the violence in camps next to the runway.

The president, who arrived for and left the meeting in an armored personnel carrier belonging to the Chadian peacekeeping contingent, has agreed to organize new elections, as early as the end of next year, according to Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangay, and then he is expected to step down — a promise Power said the U.S. would hold him to.

"Powerful people sometimes don't like to give up power," she said after her meeting with him. "It is extremely important that the president, the prime minister and the head of the council have all agreed to relinquish power as soon as elections occur."