BANGUI: Come nightfall, civilian supporters of besieged Central African Republic President François Bozize spread around the capital Bangui erecting roadblocks to prevent any rebel incursion.
"Our motto is: our country or death. We will overcome," said a young man standing at a checkpoint in the northern part of the capital.
He is one of many citizen volunteers calling themselves "patriots" who are deployed in the president's neighbourhood, which is on the road to the north where the rebels have taken up position, and elsewhere in the city.
In a month-long offensive, the Seleka rebel coalition has seized many key towns and cities, come within 160 kilometers (96 miles) of Bangui, and threatened to seize the capital.
But the commander of the regional African force FOMAC on Wednesday warned the rebels against any attempt to take Damara, the last strategic town between them and Bangui.
"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.
Even if the front has stabilised with the arrival of soldiers from surrounding countries and France, the city remains tense.
"In the current context, it's a national cause," said a muscular young man wearing a Michael Jordan jersey.
"The rebels occupy the whole territory. We cannot ask the army and the police to secure the neighbourhoods," he said.
In the afternoon, this poor neighbourhood of homes made of red earth and sheet metal or straw roofs appears to lead a peaceful life. But on the dirt roads, tyres, pickets and large stones form roadblocks at night.
"We do this to detect the rebels who enter via the hills," said a young man, who like the others asked to remain anonymous.
"It seems that the motorcycle taxis make up the centrepiece of the distribution of munitions and weapons. They circulate freely on side roads. We are reassured with these checkpoints," said one man.
A security official who asked not to be named said that during the capture of the cities of the north, where they launched their offensive on December 10, the rebels slipped into built-up areas in twos and threes before mounting their attacks.
The main opposition leader Martin Ziguele, a former prime minister, denounced the use of what he called "auxillary forces" and expressed fear that the country was "turning into a non-state."
The methods of detecting rebels appear summary.
"We ask for papers, we verify if the person speaks Sango or French. If he doesn't, he is automatically a suspect and we take them to the police station," a volunteer said.
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, and the residents of Bangui see them as foreigners.
A resident of the neighborhood admitted he was "living with fear in the stomach."
Another said people were distributing "machetes to the idle" and that young people were abducting many Muslims suspected of complicity with the rebels.
Overnight Monday, a young Muslim questioned by these militias tried to escape and was shot dead by soldiers.
But the "patriots" defend their decision to track Muslims.
"There is no hunt for Muslims. It's the rebels who say that to influence the international community," one of them said.
"We search containers to make sure people do not come in with weapons," another explained.
Bozize supporters said a shoe shiner was caught with munitions in his supplies.
In addition to erecting roadblocks, which are manned by about a dozen people doing shifts, the "patriots" said they conduct street patrols day and night.
"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.
All the volunteers insisted their actions were legal, carried out without aggressivity.
Several witnesses said many of those manning the roadblocks are armed with machetes and bows and arrows, or kokoras, the term in Sango.
And they call themselves the Citizen Coalition Opposed to the Armed Rebels, or COCORA, the French acronym.
But the supporters denied the accusations. "We don't have weapons. We are not soldiers," one said. "We are united and we are numerous. Our strength is the group.
"Ours is a noble cause."