, BANGUI, Central African Republic, Jan 2 – The commander of multinational African force FOMAC on Wednesday warned rebels in the Central African Republic against trying to take the key town of Damara, saying it would “amount to a declaration of war”.
Damara is the last strategic town between the Seleka rebel coalition and the capital Bangui, after the rebels seized much of the country in a three-week advance that began in the north and has brought them to within 160 kilometres (100 miles) of the capital, in the south.
“Let it be clear, we will not give up Damara,” said FOMAC commander 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 reiterated that Damara remained the last key government-controlled town before the capital, located 75 kilometres away on the southern border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The red line is Damara,” he said.
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.
The nearby town of Bambari, formerly a stronghold of the Central African Republic’s army, has been under rebel control since December 23.
The rebels, who began their campaign on December 10 and have taken several key towns and cities, have accused President Francois Bozize of failing to honour a 2007 peace deal.
Central African nations have begun sending reinforcements to bolster the country’s army against the rebels.
The regional troops are fighting under the banner of 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 Central African Republic.
Northern neighbour Chad, whose President Idriss Deby is an ally of Bozize, has contributed most of the troops to the force, which will number 760 by the end of the week.
Akaga, the force’s commander, said Wednesday that his troops would prevent both government and rebel forces from encroaching on the “red line” of Damara.
“The red line applies to both the military and the rebels,” he said.
“We are preventing everyone from crossing the red line in either direction.”
The general said the situation was “status quo” and that both the government and rebels seemed to be waiting for eventual peace talks in Gabon, which central African nations have called on both sides to hold.
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.
Bozize has said he is ready for unconditional talks toward forming a power-sharing government, but the rebels have questioned the president’s credibility and repeatedly called for his departure, threatening to take Damara and the capital.