DAKAR, June 1 (Reuters) - Central African Republic's prime minister on Sunday called for voluntary national disarmament next week in a bid to halt a worsening cycle of violence that threatens to drive Muslims from the West of the country.
In a televised address, Prime Minister Andre Nzapayeke declared June 8 would be a day for all citizens to hand in their weapons, after a spike in sectarian tensions in the majority-Christian capital Bangui following an attack on a church by Muslim gunmen on Wednesday.
The attack, in which U.N. officials say at least 17 people were killed, sparked two days of violent protests in Bangui. Thousands of people took to the streets to demand the departure of African Union peacekeepers and the resignation of Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza.
"Everyone who has a firearm is called upon to return it voluntarily to the town hall of their neighbourhood," Nzapayeke said, adding he hoped this would encourage all neighbourhoods - Christian and Muslim alike - to disarm at the same time.
Muslims in Bangui have expressed anger that previous attempts at disarmament left them prey to the "anti-balaka" Christian militia.
Nzapayeke said that members of the armed forces - many of whom have joined the anti-balaka Christian militia - were urged to declare their weapons to their commanding officers and to return to the ranks of the army.
He said the government would not tolerate any further demonstrations which had not received authorities' approval.
Central African Republic has been gripped by ethnic and religious violence since northern Seleka rebels, who are mostly Muslim, seized power in the mainly Christian nation in 2013.
Seleka left power in January under international pressure after 10 months of looting and violence that had prompted the formation of the Christian self-defence militia.
Since then attacks by anti-balaka have largely driven Muslims from Bangui and the west, effectively partitioning the country, whose east is controlled mainly by Seleka.
Several thousand Muslims, however, remain in the PK5 neighbourhood of Bangui, where skirmishes with anti-balaka have become a regular occurrence. Hundreds of Muslims in PK5 protested on Saturday against calls for disarmament and demanded their safe evacuation from the city.
Samba-Panza, visiting hospitalised people injured in recent days of violence in Bangui, said that disarmament would be done in an orderly fashion in collaboration with the AU force (MISCA) and France's 2,000-strong peacekeeping mission so as to protect the Muslim population.
(Reporting by Crispin Dembassa-Kette and Hubert Mary Djamany; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)