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Amid spasm of violence, United States diplomat in Central African Republic

BANGUI, Central African Republic — The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations flew into Central African Republic on Thursday in the highest profile American effort to date to spotlight violence that has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced at least 10 percent of the population.

Ambassador Samantha Power said she urged President Michel Djotodia, whose forces have been implicated in atrocities, to stick by his promise to organize elections by the end of next year and step down. She also called on him to investigate the killings and hold those responsible accountable to stop the cycle of violence.

"This is the moment still from which the Central African Republic can pull back from the abyss. There is a lot of fear out there and people are looking for reassurance," she said just before sunset, the air filled with the smoke of thousands of campfires from those seeking refuge at the airport.

She announced that the U.S. will spend $100 million to transport and help equip African Union troops to help stabilize the country and stop the vicious cycle of violence that has largely targeted civilians.

Muslim rebels overthrew the Christian president of the Central African Republic in March, and a cycle of sectarian violence followed, pitting Muslims against Christians. Earlier this month, Christian militias attacked the capital at dawn, setting off the worst killings to date, with at least 500 dead in less than a week in Bangui alone.

Thursday's visit, her first overseas trip since being named ambassador to the world body, is particularly resonant for Power, who began her career as a journalist and activist and became one of the most vocal critics of America's response to past atrocities. In her acclaimed book on the subject, Power asked the question: Why do American leaders who vow "never again" repeatedly fail to stop genocide?

Power began her visit by landing at the country's international airport, which has been turned into a refugee camp housing 40,000 people. In recent days, international flights have been delayed, as airport employees struggled to keep people off the runway. Ahead of Power's visit, rolls of barbed wire were laid out alongside the tarmac, to keep the population at bay.

The bloody clothes of people killed in the latest spasm of violence could still be seen lying on the ground, including in front of the nation's parliament, where bodies were piled up. Videos of mob lynchings were being passed from cellphone to cellphone.

Soon after she landed, Power sped away in a convoy of armored SUVs and visited a hospital where 400 people were being treated for both bullet wounds and injuries sustained from machete blows, a doctor said. She then headed to the capital's cathedral, where she met the archbishop as well as an imam. Later, she visited a mosque, this time accompanied by a priest, in an effort to address the Muslim-Christian violence that has plagued the country.

By mid-afternoon she returned to the airport for her meeting with President Djotodia and the transitional government.

While Power initially cautioned against comparing Central African Republic to other African tragedies, she also didn't hesitate to draw parallels. "Somalia showed us what can happen in a failed state and Rwanda showed us what can occur in a deeply divided nation," she said. "The population of the Central Africa Republic is in danger."

Before joining government service, Power was a professor at Harvard and a journalist, covering the Balkan war. Her Pulitzer-prize winning book, "A Problem from Hell," opens with a 9-year-old girl in Sarajevo who went outside over her mother's objections to skip rope. Power shows up soon after a shell crashes into the playground. She describes the shallow pool of blood, and lying next to it, a jump rope with handles made to look like ice cream-cones. The book, published in 1992, is a tour through the atrocities of the past half-century, including Cambodia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. Drawing on her own interviews and declassified documents, she tells the stories of Americans who risked their careers to get the United States to act.

In the Central African Republic, it's France, not the United States, that has taken bold action to try to thwart what French officials have said is a potential genocide. Earlier this month, France sent in 1,600 troops, joining 3,500 African Union soldiers. The U.S. has limited its involvement to providing C-17 transport planes to carry the troops into Bangui. Analysts say that France has been abandoned by its normal allies, left to act alone in its former colony.

"We seem to be entering a new geostrategic era here where it's people like the French who are standing up and taking the hits. And the U.S. is very much in a support capacity, support mode," said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This must inevitably cause tensions in the U.S.-French relationship because this is the key external security partnership in Africa and yet, you know the events of the last couple of years, it seems to suggest France is expected to take the lead in all of these operations."

Human Rights Watch's U.N. director Phillipe Bolopion said Power's early work on genocide makes her a significant choice for the first high-level U.S. mission.

"She used to be an observer on the sidelines and now she is at the very center of it so she's fully aware of what is at stake there, and with her background I think she is doing everything in her power to push the U.S. government to react the way it should," he said.

Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal and Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris contributed to this report.