BANGUI: Renewed fighting between government forces and rebels seeking to overthrow the president broke out Friday in Central African Republic’s third largest city, a military official said, hours after the U.S. ambassador and his team were evacuated from the capital.
Government soldiers appeared to be in control of Bambari following the clashes, according to military officials. The town is located about 385 kilometers from the capital and had been under rebel control for five days.
The new violence came the same day as the Central African Republic's neighbors took steps to tackle the crisis in the chronically unstable nation, where rebels have advanced towards the capital Bangui, stoking local and international alarm.
Foreign ministers in the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) were due to discuss the crisis at a meeting in the Gabonese capital Libreville, which is seen as a potential venue for peace talks.
ECCAS Deputy Secretary General Guy-Pierre Garcia said late Friday that rebels and the Central African government had agreed to unconditional talks.
"The goal is to get to negotiations [between the government and the rebels] by January 10," a source in the Central African Multinational Force (FOMAC) told AFP.
Earlier Friday, Bangui residents fled in overloaded cars and boats and others stockpiled food and water as rebel forces paused at the city gates for cease-fire talks.
Scores of wooden boats piled high with baggage and people crossed the Oubangui River toward Democratic Republic of Congo on the other side, while the main road south away from rebel lines was choked with vehicles.
The United States evacuated about 40 people, including the U.S. ambassador, on an U.S. air force plane bound for Kenya, said U.S. officials who insisted on anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the operation. The United States has special forces troops in the country who are assisting in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel leader of another rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The U.S. special forces remain in the country, the U.S. military’s Africa Command said from its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
The International Committee for the Red Cross said Friday that it too had evacuated some workers, though it stressed it would continue to provide aid to the growing number of displaced people.
The evacuation of the U.S. diplomats came in the wake of criticism of how the U.S. handled diplomatic security before and during the attack on its consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11. The ambassador and three other Americans were killed in that attack.
French diplomats are staying despite a violent demonstration outside its embassy earlier this week.
Wednesday, demonstrators angry at France's failure to intervene tore down the flag at the French embassy in Bangui and broke windows at the building. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius spoke via phone with President Francois Bozize, asking him to take responsibility for the safety of French nationals and diplomatic missions in Central African Republic.
Bozize Thursday urgently called on former colonial ruler France and other foreign powers to help his government in fending off rebels who are quickly seizing territory and approaching the country’s capital.
But French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Friday that France had no intention of getting involved in the crisis, and would only intervene to protect its own nationals there.
French President Francois Hollande also said earlier that France wants to protect its interests in Central African Republic and not Bozize’s government.
A diplomatic team from FOMAC has begun talks with authorities in Bangui and sent a delegation to the rebel-held strategic town of Ndele in the north to meet members of the rebel coalition Seleka, which launched its offensive on December 10.
Seleka – A coalition of three rebel movements – or the "alliance" in the Sango language – has taken a string of towns, including four regional capitals, among them the garrison town and key diamond mining hub of Birao.
The coalition wants the government to fulfill the terms of peace pacts signed in 2007 and 2001, providing for disarmament and social reintegration, including pay. Bozize took power in a 2003 coup and has twice been elected into office. In 2006, France, which supported Bozize in his rise to power, had lent logistical help and air support to fight off rebels.
While Seleka says it has no plans to move on the capital, a statement last week announcing it had suspended its advance was followed within a day by news of further rebel victories.
France has around 250 soldiers based at Bangui airport providing technical support to the FOMAC peacekeeping mission, which consists of up to 500 troops from Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and Cameroon.
As the ill-equipped Central African army proved little opposition to the insurgents, Bozize also asked for help from neighboring Chad which sent in some troops.
......THE DAILY STAR-LEBANON/REUTERS