VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis pleaded Wednesday for an immediate end to violence in the Central African Republic, calling for resolution in the conflict that led to the overthrow of the nation's president and left thousands of people wounded and homeless.
"I wish to ensure that I am praying for all those who are suffering," said Pope Francis during his first general audience in St. Peter's Square. "In particular for the relatives of the victims, for the wounded and those who lost their homes or were forced to flee."
The former French colony had been under a fragile truce since January. Last week, armed rebel groups known as Seleka took over Bangui, the capital, and ousted longtime President Francois Bozize. As the former president fled to neighboring Cameroon, urban guerrilla warfare broke out, leaving thousands without basic needs.
Some South African soldiers, in the country on a training contingent at the request of the government, were killed and injured by the rebel forces, said the UN Security Council in a statement condemning the violence.
"I plead for an immediate end to the sacking and violence, so that a political solution to the crisis can be found as soon as possible," said Francis as he stood on a platform under a white canopy. "To give peace and harmony to that dear country, which for too long has been marked by conflicts and divisions."
During the general audience, which takes place every Wednesday in St. Peter's Square, the pope greeted cheering pilgrims from Catholic schools and organizations from all over the world. With lengthy applause, the crowd welcomed Pope Francis' words of peace for Africa.
"The pope has sent a clear message. I hope that it will be translated into concrete actions," said Jean Bruno Ramahefarivo, from the African island of Madagascar, who traveled with his wife and three children to Rome. "Africa is torn by political conflict, many are killed, women are raped and children are working at a very young age because of these conflicts."
Experts say the speech by the pope from Argentina could mark the beginning of a new era of global involvement for the Roman Catholic Church.
"Benedict was a fairly apolitical pope, and most expect Francis to be a bit more outspoken, especially on issues of poverty and violence," said John Allen, a Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. "As the first pope from the developing world, I suspect he'll feel obliged to act as a tribune for their concerns."
Before Wednesday's general audience, in what has already become a trademark of his papacy, Pope Francis toured St. Peter's Square on an open-aired popemobile, stopping to kiss dozens of babies brought to him by his black-clad security guards amid squealing parents.