UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The Central African Republic’s leader on Monday called his unilateral cease-fire announcement a new effort to restore peace to his crisis-wracked country. And he and strongly defended his decision to ask Russian instructors and Rwandan forces to help counter rebels threatening the government, a move that sparked strong Western opposition.

Despite differences, especially over Russian involvement in the impoverished country, the U.N. Security Council welcomed President Faustin Archange Touadera’s announcement of a cease-fire Friday. The 15 council members called it “an important step” toward implementing the February 2019 peace agreement between the government and 14 rebel groups “which is the only viable path to peace and stability.”

The U.N.’s most powerful body expressed concern that some signatories to the peace deal continue to disregard the commitments they made and urged “all stakeholders present in the CAR to respect the cease-fire.”

Touadera said his government supported the cease-fire call on Sept. 16 by leaders from the Great Lakes region, which was part of a roadmap for peace that they adopted at a summit in Angola “to breathe new life” into the 2019 peace deal.

“My declaration of a cease-fire demonstrates … that our only ambition is to ultimately find a lasting political solution in the CAR to the crisis that we are enduring,” the president said.

The mineral-rich country has faced deadly intercommunal fighting since 2013, when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power and forced then President Francois Bozize from office. Mostly Christian anti-Balaka militias later fought back, also targeting civilians in the streets. Untold thousands were killed, and most of the capital’s Muslims fled in fear.

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A peace deal between the government and 14 rebel groups was signed in February 2019, but violence erupted after the constitutional court rejected Bozize’s candidacy to run for president last December. Touadera won a second term with 53% of the vote, but he continues to face opposition from a rebel coalition linked to Bozize.

Touadera said in a virtual briefing to the council that government forces, along with Russian instructors and Rwandan troops, thwarted the rebels and were able to protect civilians, ensure the holding of presidential and legislative elections “in full security,” and delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid.

In June, the United States, Britain and France accused Russian mercenaries of operating alongside government forces and committing human rights violations against civilians and obstructing U.N. peacekeeping. Russia vehemently denied those claims.

Touadera made no mention of mercenaries in his briefing.

But France’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Nathalie Broadhurst, said the presence of the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company that reportedly has close ties to the Kremlin, is “deeply destabilizing” to Central Africa Republic and well documented in U.N. reports.

“It is a factor of war and not a factor of peace,” she said. “Evidence of the abuses committed by this group is piling up: extrajudicial arrests, summary executions, sexual and gender-based violence, threats against human rights defenders, and obstruction of humanitarian access.”

Broadhurst also accused Wagner of “taking advantage of its position to engage in organized predation of natural resources” which should be benefiting the country’s economy.

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Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Anna Evstigneeva, countered that Russian instructors have successfully enhanced the professionalism of Central African Republic forces and are not fighting. “Thanks to this, the military situation in the country has been stabilized,” she said.

She made no mention of Russian mercenaries and instead responded to accusations by council members by saying: “They should focus their attention on the blatant cases of human rights violations and international humanitarian law committed by their own militaries and private companies. They should also analyze the outcome of their longstanding military participation and involvement in military campaigns in Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world.”

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said reports indicate that Central African Republic forces and individuals identified by Russia as “instructors” have committed numerous violations of humanitarian law and human rights abuses.

“We hope the announcement of last week’s cease-fire will bring these activities to a permanent halt,” she said, adding that only full implementation of the 2019 peace agreement and an inclusive political dialogue can restore peace.

U.N. special envoy Mankeur Ndiaye told the council there were 41 documented violations of the U.N. status of forces agreement with the Central African Republic government between June 1 and Oct. 1 that “negatively affect confidence, partnership and peaceful coexistence.” The violations involve government troops and their supporters and include arresting and detaining U.N. personnel and blocking their freedom of movement, he said.

Ndiaye called the situation “particularly deplorable” because the 14,000-strong U.N. force in the country never faced such incidents before the government’s deployment of “bilateral forces.” He welcomed the engagement of Touadera’s government “to put an end to this situation.”

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Calling the situation “volatile and highly unpredictable,” African Union commissioner Adeoye Bankole called on the government to end all “hostile acts” and bring the perpetrators to justice.

He urged an immediate cease-fire by armed groups and a return to the peace agreement. In a virtual briefing, he also welcomed preparations for a national dialogue, saying it must be inclusive.

“I want to assure you that the cease-fire declared by President Touadera, if effective, will be a game-changer,” Bankole said.