DAMARA/UNITED NATIONS: Rebels in Central African Republic said they had halted their advance on the capital Wednesday and agreed to start peace talks, averting a clash with regionally backed troops.
The Seleka rebels had pushed to within striking distance of Bangui after a three-week onslaught and threatened to oust President Francois Bozize, accusing him of reneging on a previous peace deal and cracking down on dissidents.
Their announcement Wednesday gave the leader only a limited reprieve as the fighters told Reuters they might insist on his removal in the negotiations.
“I have asked our forces not to move their positions starting today because we want to enter talks in [Gabon’s capital] Libreville for a political solution,” said Seleka spokesman Eric Massi, speaking by telephone from Paris.
“I am in discussion with our partners to come up with proposals to end the crisis, but one solution could be a political transition that excludes Bozize,” he said.
Bozize Wednesday sacked his Army chief of staff and took over the defense minister’s role from his son, Jean Francis Bozize, according to a decree read on national radio, a day after publicly criticizing the military for failing to repel the rebels.
The advance by Seleka, an alliance of mostly northeastern rebel groups, was the latest in a series of revolts in a country at the heart of one of the continent’s most turbulent regions – and the most serious since the Chad-backed insurgency that swept Bozize to power in 2003.
Diplomatic sources have said talks organized by Central African regional bloc ECCAS could start on Jan. 10. The United States, the European Union and France have called on both sides to negotiate and spare civilians.
The United Nations also called for dialogue between the government and the Seleka, offering its help to organize talks.
“We continue to follow the situation with serious concern,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Wednesday. “We are calling on both the government and the rebels to focus on dialogue that can avert violence and lead to a peaceful resolution.”
The special U.N. representative for the country, Margaret Vogt, “is staying in close dialogue with the key parties in CAR and in the region and has offered the United Nations support for any political negotiations,” Nesirky said.
News of the rebel halt eased tension in Bangui, where residents had been stockpiling food and water and staying indoors after dark.
“They say they are no longer going to attack Bangui, and that’s great news for us,” said Jaqueline Loza in the crumbling riverside city.
ECCAS members Chad, Congo Republic, Gabon and Cameroon have sent hundreds of soldiers to reinforce CAR’s army after a string of rebel victories since early December.
Gabonese Gen. Jean Felix Akaga, commander of the regional force, said his troops were defending the town of Damara, 75 km north of Bangui and close to the rebel front.
“Damara is a red line not to be crossed ... Damara is in our control and Bangui is secure,” he told Reuters. “If the rebellion decides to approach Damara, they know they will encounter a force that will react.”
Soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and truck-mounted machine guns had taken up positions across the town, which was otherwise nearly abandoned.
Some of the fighters wore turbans that covered their faces and had charms strung around their necks and arms meant to protect them against enemy bullets.
Chad’s President Idriss Deby, one of Bozize’s closest allies, had warned the rebels the regional force would confront them if they approached the town.
Chad provided training and equipment to the rebellion that brought Bozize to power by ousting then-President Ange Felix Patasse, whom Chad had accused of supporting Chadian dissidents at the time.
Chad is also keen to keep a lid on instability in the territory close to its main oil export pipeline and has stepped in to defend Bozize against insurgents in the past.