BANGUI, Central African Republic: Rebels in the Central African Republic said Wednesday they were suspending their advance and would hold peace talks with the government, after regional armies sent reinforcements to stop them reaching the capital.
The Seleka rebel coalition’s lightning three-week advance from the north of the country to within striking distance of the capital Bangui in the south has raised fears of a spreading crisis and drawn regional calls for negotiations with the government in the Gabonese capital Libreville.
“I confirm that we have decided to suspend the offensive towards Bangui, and that we will send a delegation to Gabon to participate in peace talks,” said rebel spokesman Eric Massi.
He said the rebels were nevertheless still demanding the departure of President Francois Bozize, whom they accuse of failing to honour a 2007 peace deal. Bozize has said he is ready for unconditional talks toward forming a power-sharing government.
“The departure of President Bozize is still one of our demands because we do not believe he is sincere,” said Massi.
“The Seleka coalition is however in favour of peace, and we have always said we do not want to enter Bangui.”
Other rebel representatives said no timetable for peace talks had been set yet.
“Central Africa has not organised anything for the moment,” said Guy Simplice Koudegue, a spokesman for the Republican Front for Alternation and Peace, a political coalition recently formed in Paris that backs the rebels’ demands.
“The negotiations are being prepared, but it seems that central Africa is waiting for its full force to be in Bangui.”
Central African nations have begun sending reinforcements to Damara, the last major town between the rebels and the capital, to bolster the Central African Republic’s army against the rebels.
The regional troops are fighting under the banner of multinational African force FOMAC, which was launched in 2008 by the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC) in a bid to stabilise the coup- and rebellion-prone country.
Northern neighbour Chad, whose President Idriss Deby is an ally of Bozize, has contributed most of the troops to the force, which will reach its full strength of 760 by the end of the week.
FOMAC’s commander sternly warned the rebels Wednesday against trying to take Damara — which sits between Bangui and the rebel-held town of Sibut, 160 kilometres (100 miles) from the capital.
“Let it be clear, we will not give up Damara,” said General Jean-Felix Akaga.
“If the rebels attack Damara that would amount to a declaration of war and would mean that they have decided to engage the 10 central African states,” he told reporters in Bangui.
“I honestly don’t think they will go that far.”
Akaga said Bangui was well secured by FOMAC troops and called Damara a “red line” that FOMAC would not allow either side to cross.
He also said the rebels appeared to be a motley crew.
”We do not have direct contact with the rebels, and no one can know their exact number. It would surprise me if the rebels themselves know how many they are. It’s a mixture of multiple movements,” he said.
– Civilians take matters into own hands –
In the centre of the country, residents of the village of Ngakobo said four people had died in clashes between villagers and rebels that broke out when a group of rebels tried to loot a local sugar refinery.
Residents saw the rebels raiding the refinery Tuesday and attacked the ambulance they were trying to use to cart off their loot, slashing its tyres, a resident told AFP by phone on condition of anonymity.
“The rebels were furious and opened fire on the residents. They killed two of them. After that, clashes broke out and two rebels were stabbed to death,” he said.
The same refinery had already been looted once on Sunday, residents said.
Sudan’s military meanwhile said Wednesday that it had evacuated more than 40 Sudanese nationals, as well as some Yemeni, Egyptian and Chadian citizens, from the Central African Republic because of the rebel advance toward the capital.
In Bangui, civilian supporters of Bozize have taken to erecting roadblocks to prevent any rebel incursion, stopping vehicles to check whether the occupants speak Sango or French.
A national language, Sango is not spoken by the people of the north, a mainly Muslim region where the majority of the rebels come from.
“In our neighbourhood, we were told that a man belonged to a rebel group in the bush. We burned down his house four days ago,” a man at a checkpoint said.
Overnight Monday, a young Muslim questioned by these militias tried to escape and was shot dead by soldiers, setting off clashes in which a police officer was killed.