CentrAfrica rebels refuse pull-back, Chad offers talks
Rebels in the Central African Republic on Thursday spurned international calls to withdraw from occupied towns, but Chad announced that it would host talks with both sides, meeting a key rebel demand.
Chad, whose president is a close ally of Central African President Francois Bozize, on Wednesday sent troops across the border at Bangui’s request as rebels moved south towards the capital in a major offensive.
The rebel coalition, known as Seleka, accuses Bozize of failing to follow through on peace deals cut between 2007 and 2011 by providing financial support and social reinsertion for rebels who lay down their arms.
“We will not pull back from our positions on the ground until there is a sincere dialogue with the regime,” Michel Djotodia, one of the leaders of the rebel coalition, told AFP Thursday.
“Only in this way are we going to maintain the pressure on the Bangui regime,” he added, after Seleka forces continued a lightning advance by capturing a key diamond-mining and garrison town earlier in the week.
Neighbouring Chad promptly answered that call.
“Negotiations are scheduled to take place throughout tomorrow (Friday),” Chad’s Communications and Information Minister Hassan Sylla Bakari told AFP.
“We were approached by both sides to play the role of facilitator.”
A Chadian foreign ministry official added that a meeting of heads of state of the Economic Community of Central African States would be held in Chad on Friday, devoted to the crisis.
“We have never said that we are going to march on Bangui, but we insist on a sincere dialogue from President Bozize,” Djotodia said. “We are not looking to take power. We just want our rights to be recognised.”
Rebels from the three groups in the Seleka coalition, which was formed in August, have been heading steadily southwards from Ndele, a major northern town close to the Chadian border, which was taken on December 15.
They seized the town of Batangafo in the northwest of the country, a military source said, while the army recaptured Kabo in the north.
A Central African military official said the Chadian soldiers arrived on Tuesday at Kaga Bandoro, southwest of Ndele, where they joined Central African troops to back them up “in the counter-attack aimed at retaking towns that have fallen into the hands of the rebels”.
Chad’s President Idriss Deby Itno helped Bozize when the former general seized power in a 2003 coup and already sent troops to pin back a rebellion in 2010.
The latest Chadian intervention came after the rebels captured Bria, a diamond-mining and garrison town 400 kilometres (250 miles) northeast of the capital.
Rebel advances met little resistance from government troops.
In Bria, residents reached by phone said the town had emptied and complained that rebel forces had committed abuses, killing a customs officer and abducting several women for ransom.
They also said the rebels were stealing from the population and looting.
“Under the pretext of preventing us from communicating their positions to regular forces, they are confiscating all our mobile phones,” Mathias Ouangbanga said.
Central African Defence Minister Jean-Francois Bozize, the son of the president, said Thursday that the army was undertaking withdrawals “to organise themselves”.
“Our troops are not falling back, they are using strategies to get organised and to advance,” he said.
Opposition politicians, former colonial power France, the African Union and the UN Security Council have all called on the rebels to halt their offensive.
The United Nations condemned attacks and human rights violations by armed groups and urged them to “immediately cease hostilities, withdraw from captured cities (and) cease any further advance towards the city of Bangui.”
It called on all sides to respect a 2008 peace agreement and for the government and the rebels “to renew their commitment to the national reconciliation process”.
The Central African Republic has fewer than five million inhabitants. It ranks 179th out of 187 countries on the UN’s latest development index and has seen frequent coups and mutinies.